Dysmorphia by Alex Williamson

All the times his body rebelled against him.

During his preschool exam, aged four, the GP asked his mother to take his clothes off. As the GP was inspecting his penis, he indicated his unusually long foreskin to his mother and warned that her son should take great care not to trap it in the zip of his trousers. It’s common problem, the GP said. Can be very painful.

His fair skin, which burnt in the sun in a matter of minutes, and even on overcast days left him pink. On holiday in France his shoulders burnt while he was in the swimming pool.

In primary school he began biting his nails in his classes, often to the quick. Sometimes until they bled. His mother brought home a bitter-tasting enamel from the chemist, which she applied to his nails on night. It slowed the biting but did not stop it. At night he would scrape the enamel off with his teeth so he could continue chewing. Eventually he forced himself to stop, and let his nails grow so long that he could drum them on the desk at school.

He sucked his thumb until he was eleven. The bitter enamel worked for that too.

The pubic hair that didn’t appear until he was fourteen, the sideburns and stubble that refused to grow.

The flaccid pectorals and swollen nipples that developed in adolescence and persisted into adulthood. Mild gynecomastia, an increase in his breast gland tissue, the consequence of an imbalance in oestrogen and testosterone. He watched what he ate and took regular exercise. Still they remained.

The hair that began falling from his head when he was eighteen.

The varied plethora of moles all over his body, on his chest and back, and even in his armpits, that told him he was going to get cancer.

In late adolescence he became convinced he had testicular cancer, and was checked repeatedly by a variety of doctors, male and female, none of whom could find any problem. A scan found nothing of concern.

His skinny calves, like chicken legs.

The crease in the centre of his forehead from frowning in concentration, or frowning in thought, or frowning in fury, or simply from frowning whenever he did anything unconsciously. He probably frowned in his sleep. He told people he had angry resting face.

In early middle age he became convinced he had a lung infection, cancer, pleurisy. Twice he was sent for an x-ray. The results came back negative. 

The hair that appeared on his back and shoulders and arse, from his ears and nose. The eyebrows that grew bushier and the hair on his head continued to fall and grow thinner. The facial hair that refused to form a beard.

He could not pass a mirror without checking his hairline, frown line, crooked nose, nasal hair. He hated how he looked in photographs and avoided them. On the rare occasions he went to take a selfie with his children, he was disturbed at how old he looked, like he had inadvertently downloaded a face-aging app.

The inevitability of his mortality.

In the Mountains, There You Feel Free by Alex Williamson

These are the breaks.

 

i.

He was just outside of Bourg St Maurice, at the foot of the Alps, when reality started to bite. Wedged on the back seat of an old blue minibus with a crick in his neck and a stale taste in his mouth, he awoke to find himself squeezed between a travel-sick Essex girl and a taciturn Australian, surrounded by half a dozen other people he didn’t know.

He wasn’t supposed to be there. He was supposed to be finishing up his contract as a seasonal bookseller at the Crewe branch of Ottakar’s. A Christmas casual. Two months into his tenure, after one too many arguments with customers, he decided he wasn’t cut out for a career in retail, and that he should cut his losses and cut out of there.

Which was how he found himself as passenger in a minibus convoy rumbling south towards the French ski resort of La Rosiere, part of a retinue of would-be seasonaires drawn from the four corners of the UK, in addition to a handful of interlopers from the Commonwealth. Each destined for a gruelling induction of repetitive deep-cleaning, self-aggrandising small talk and heavy drinking. Not everyone would make to the end of the season. Many lost blood, limbs and their minds on the mountain. Some lost their virginity there. Some didn’t make it back at all.

 

The turnaround from quitting his bookshop job to being wedged in the back of the minibus was little over a week. When his father had suggested working in a ski resort instead of bookselling over Christmas, it seemed like a flawless escape plan. As a family they had holidayed with the small ski company several times before, and his father put in a good word for him. A couple of weeks before Christmas, the two of them made a hurried journey across the Pennines for a quick interview with the management team at their Yorkshire HQ. They offered him a job on the spot, but the job he was offered was nebulous in the extreme. All the ski tech or plongeur roles had been taken, and he was too young to be a ski guide or work in the bar, and he didn’t know one end of a chef’s knife from the other. This left the dubious honor of travelling to France as a floating chalet boy. Making beds, cleaning toilets and waiting tables in the restaurant, in addition to other duties as required. In addition to the lacklustre pay, the company threw in a free lift pass, bed and board, plus any tips collated at the end of the week, and, so long as the daily duties were done, plenty of time to ski.

La Rosiere was a tiny, three-chairlift ski area which bordered with La Thuile in Italy. Their base in La Rosiere was a 62-bed chalet hotel called Le Roc Noir, one of the first hotels in the resort specifically built for winter sports. The hotel was run by a long-serving resort husband-and-wife management team. Surrogate parents for the season. For the first week of induction, twenty to thirty seasonnaires were sequestered in the Roc. Days were spent hoovering, bleaching and mopping. He was given a scouring pad to scrub the skirting-boards in the dining room and was asked to repaint the kitchen doors using a tin of gloopy, decades-old emulsion that came off on his hands when he rehung them. Evenings were for bonding over booze, and there was a wonderfully collegiate sensibility in the first week. Everyone was on their best behaviour. Then, with the hotel fit for human habitation, the team was split up.

 

ii.

A skeletal crew was left at Le Roc Noir. The kitchen was a testosterone zone, led by a camp, authoritarian head chef, a gregarious, muscular Canadian, a quiet, hipster Australian, and a wall-eyed Welshman as plongeur. The chalet team consisted of two New Age travellers who’d signed up together and the Essex girl, plus him as floating chalet boy. A ski tech who kept a watchful eye on his stocks and shares. Two bar staff who fell out almost immediately. Three ski guides of varying capability and competence. 

His one and only ski season was defined by false dawns and fuck ups, stoned camaraderie and social dissipation. It also saw the most depressing Christmas Day he had ever endured. After staying up until 4am on Christmas Eve and collapsing on his bed in a drunken heap, he was woken at 7am by a sharp rap on the door to his subterranean bedroom by the manager, and given a dressing down for forgetting to set up breakfast for the guests the night before. Still drunk, he then had to serve breakfast. Later that day, after wiping down guests’ toilets and putting his hangover to be, he phoned home to wish his family happy Christmas, whereupon his mother burst into tears. The hotel had a policy that every member of staff should invite themselves to join the guests at one of their tables, and clear their plates, top up their wine, engage them in witty repartee etc That evening at dinner, he spent two hours trying to talk to the guests, and largely being ignored.

For a moment, it looked as though he might become the ski tech after all, when the week before the Roc was due to open, the incumbent snowboarded into a snowdrift and broke his ankle. Desperate to see the season out, the unfortunate ski tech discharged himself from hospital and returned to the hotel to carry out his repairs while hopping on one leg. For the first few days after his return, he was called upon to aid him in the task by holding his Black and Decker Workmate steady. The ski tech later showed great generosity of spirit by insulting him in front of guests and telling them his name was Rupert. When the management team tried to have him sent home, he had the pins holding his ankle together removed early and fitted the guests’ skis while hobbling around on one crutch. Eventually, he recovered sufficiently to be able to join the guests at dinner, seeing off carafe after carafe of foul house wine in the process, though he never rode his board again.

The ski tech shared a room with mildly autistic member of the team, a ski guide who became the resident handyman after he lost his guests in the first week, and who dry-heaved every time he took the kitchen refuse out into the street, the result of finding a dead cat in a wheelie bin while working for Doncaster council many years ago. It was somewhat fortuitous, given the peculiarities of the other seasonnaires, that he found himself in a room share with the only truly non-psychotic team members, the two chefs and the plongeur Welshman. Despite the barely-humane conditions of their accommodation, a claustrophobic room directly below the public bar where the only natural light and fresh air came from a small window which opened directly onto La Rosiere’s busy main road, everyone seemed to get on well. In the centre of the room was an ensuite shower room, the shower of which soon became clogged with pubic hair and excreta. The toilet had an electric flush which could be disconnected, allowing them to listen to music on the kitchen stereo. Unfortunately, this meant that on social occasions the toilet bowl continued to fill with urine until one addled individual flushed the toilet and caused it to overflow, flooding the bathroom floor. There was also a desk where he penned pained letters to friends and family, skinned up, or sulked when issued with a bollocking from the manager.

A sea-change of sorts came when the Welshman began working behind the bar, while taking the opportunity to duck out of their sperm-scented hovel, which meant that he could moved into the kitchen as plongeur. Things improved considerably from then. Freed from the tedious duties of chalet boy, it meant he could avoid the ever-complaining guests at dinner time. Being a plongeur was absolute bliss. Just the sort of mindless, monotonous work he enjoyed. It also meant more time to ski. Being a seasonnaire meant being able to avoid the crammed slopes of national holidays, and only skiing on fresh powder in unbroken sunshine. It made every moment of the monotonous work worth it. In the kitchen they were able to play music, drink beers and generally lark about. The Canadian owned a couple of Dave Matthews records, and once or twice a day we had to endure the piping of his pseudo-folk-blues-funk fuckery as we busied ourselves in the kitchen. The Australian had arrived with virtually no patisserie skills, and almost every day saw another failed quest to bake an edible cake. However, he did a clutch of hiphop and electro records. Music which permanently altered the landscape of his consciousness. For a Sixties counterculture fan steeped in the dour tones of Bob Dylan, The Band and Neil Young, who’d only very tentatively dipped a toe in the chilled waters of triphop via Massive Attack, Leftfield, Morcheeba, Rae and Christian, these records were utterly revelatory. Afrika Bambaataa, De La Soul, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Erik B and Rakim, Kurtis Blow, A Tribe Called Quest. When he listened to the socially conscious lyrics of cuts like 'The Message' of ‘White Lines’, coupled with the retro-futurism of their electro hooks and fizzing synths, he determined it to be both aurally superior, lyrically more incisive and infinitely more authentic than anything Dylan penned or opined even at the height of his powers. Hip-hop segued into funk and jazz: Gil Scott-Heron, Herbie Hancock, Curtis Mayfield, Roy Ayers. He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t listened to this music before. It was like the doors of perception had been blown off their hinges. 

 

iii.

Things were great for a couple of weeks, and they would have remained great but for the deleterious effects of drink and drugs. Weed, or more specifically, cheap hash sold at exorbitant prices by a short-arsed, stroppy Glaswegian, arrived sometime in late January and immediately altered the complexion of things. The Scottish dealer enjoyed pulling the strings, and he made the mistake of being too blasé with the dealer on their first encounter, after which he became reluctant to assist with sourcing weed. He was unsure if the management team knew about the presence of dope. On more than one occasion guests wandered into their room by accident while they were skinning up. But no one got the sack, so the likelihood was it had been permitted, if not accepted.

Booze and weed stratified the social scene, splitting the Roc group into those who smoked and those who didn’t, and those who socialised after hours and those who didn’t. The stoners, himself included, were usually early to bed. Further social stratification occurred thanks to the cultivation of an us-and-them mentality against the reps of the resort’s rival companies. A large group decamped every night to their bar, taking over seating meant for guests and drinking the bar dry almost every night. Because they spent their wages in the bar they were tolerated, or encouraged, by colleagues who worked in the bar, but it didn’t make them any less irritating, particularly when their reveries culminated in a nightly rendition of Toploader’s execrable ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’.

Integration within the wider community similarly left a lot to be desired. Suffice to say, the chalet maids were far better at furthering the d'entente cordiale with locals than they were. Being stoned, self-obsessed and engrossed in a dysfunctional pseudo-relationship with one of the chalet maids, one which boomeranged from besotted lust to adolescent despondency on his part, he didn’t pick up on the simmering resentment and festering enmity between certain contingents in the seasonnaires community. Possibly, he was blithely complicit in it without realising.

As they were unable to get off the mountain, cabin fever, and bed-hopping, were rife. Only the chefs and a couple of the guides were able to drive down to Bourg once a week to pick up supplies, buy a Big Mac and return to normality for a few hours. The majority were stuck, with little to do but drink, smoke, bicker or fuck. The shit hit the fan on the first cocktail night held in the Roc bar, sometime in February. Wednesdays were the seasonnaires’ official day off, so everyone cut loose on the Tuesday evening, knowing full well they wouldn’t have to rise and shine the next morning. Someone, most likely the Canadian chef, decided that mixing flavoured vodka to sell to guests and locals would be a great idea. Bottles of vodka were adulterated with assorted confectionary. Skittles, Mars Bars, Bounty, Snickers. Vile concoctions which triggered recriminatory carnage. 

Within a couple of hours, unleashed by their extreme inebriation, his colleagues were barking insults at each other, giving full vent to their pent-up bitterness. In one incident, a large, red-faced nursery assistant punched her aristocratic stoner chalet maid in the face. In another, one of the ski guides was (falsely) accused of assaulting his girlfriend. That night things turned a little darker. Relationships had soured, and for a while it seemed the social fabric of their little microcosm was beyond repair. It wasn’t, of course. Difficulties are always conflated with crises in the minds of the young.

After that night, a few people left, and the season carried on as normal, though with more sex, as people began to realise time there was coming to an end. Rooms that had to be closed to guests were used by staff for midnight trysts. Coachloads of harassed skiers pulled up outside the hotel every Saturday and were sent off the following Friday with a gala buffet with oysters and a whole baked salmon. No expense spared. Halfway through the season Friday nights suddenly transformed into the new Tuesday, with the chefs necking bloody Mary’s and oysters, or drinking bottles of beer with a whisky top. A new form of madness set in, but by that point everyone was sleepwalking their way through the week. New arrivals sometimes found it hard to gel with the group. One new arrival only lasted a fortnight. In that short time, she was seduced by the bar manager.

In March the temperature rose sharply, and the snow looked likely to disappear. Instead of skiing, the seasonnaires spend the days sunbathing on the hotel balcony. In April, his father and came to visit with a friend. At dinner on their first night, they claimed to have found a flea in their room. They had unbroken sunshine all that month, then the day before they were due to return to the UK, it began snowing again. Closing the resort at that point seemed insane, but that was precisely what happened, and on a foggy April morning they loaded up the blue minibus and started off on their return journey.

 

iv.

One the motorway somewhere south of Paris, in torrential rain and driving wind, a poorly-secured bag of clothes slipped loose of its mooring on the roof-rack and fell under the wheels of an articulated lorry. Upon impact, the bag exploded, and its contents were strewn across the highway. They didn’t realise this until a car overtook the minibus, the agitated driver tooting his horn and pointing up at the roof rack. They doubled back and crawled along the motorway to find a traffic policeman had closed one lane so he could remove the obstruction. When they pulled over, he looked up at the roof-rack, and realised it was his bag that had been blown loose, his clothes that had been run over. He stood in the rain, waiting for a policeman to hand him the sodden, tangled remains of his possessions.

Academia by Alex Williamson

Know what you have learned.

i.

One morning in early November, he flew to London for his viva voce. He woke alone in the spare room, torn from restive sleep by the shrill and urgent noise of his alarm clock, which was positioned a short distance away. Lying in the semi-dark of the spare room, returning slowly to consciousness, he ran at length through everything that he needed to do that day. The logistics of departure and arrival, the items he needed to take with him, the bag containing his notes, a light coat, before inevitably moving on to possible outcome of the reason for his visit. The tenor of the meeting, the questions he might be asked, the hostility or kindness of his antagonists. As he lay there, he could hear solitary cars rumbling past below the window, People on their way to work / And baby what did you expect?/ Gonna burst into flames.

That might be a relief, he thought, as he threw back the covers and walked unsteadily towards the bathroom. Under the unforgiving sodium glare he showered and dressed, with maximum speed and minimum fuss, before creeping down the creaking, ancient stairs into their kitchen, cognisant that disturbing the children at this early hour would spell catastrophe for his sleeping wife. In the kitchen, he peeled and ate a banana to stave off the biliousness that overcame him after waking too early and tried not to think further of what lay in store for him that day. Then he collected the bag he had packed the evening before which contained his passport, his annotated introduction and conclusion, and whatever book he was reading for pleasure at the time, now that reading for pleasure had once more become a thing, and stepped out into the icy air, closing the door gently behind him. He stood under the streetlamp outside his house and waited for the taxi.

He’d managed to forget about his viva, or rather, if not forgot about it entirely, he had successfully banished it to the recesses of his consciousness. He had planned for it in an abstract way, as if it was something that could still be delayed or deferred. Confirmed the date with his supervisors, booked his flights, informed his employers at the house in Hopeman that he would not be available that day, which they begrudgingly agreed to, and then he had barely given it any thought at all until a week or so beforehand, when swung into view like a tipper truck heading the wrong way down a one-way street, aimed in his direction.

Now the viva was bearing down upon him, a familiar feeling of dread had set in. He’d felt it before, when preparing for exams and his driving test as a teenagers, and thereafter at job interviews, but it had been some time since last he experienced the feeling he always associated with the knowledge that he would soon find himself in acute and sustained discomfort with little or no hope of escape. To escape, he would have to succeed. Rarely had he been able to will success upon himself.

Whenever he had to verbally present his research, he felt terrified that he would be unable to adequately describe what it was he was researching. It was a question of terminology. Lexicography. Words failed him, or rather, he failed words. He knew what he wanted to say, in simple terms, but those simple terms were off limits. Not good enough. To say what he wanted to say, he had to say something else entirely. This was the structural code of academia. Its lingua franca.   

Sometimes he overreached himself, overcomplicated his speech with digressions, tied himself in knots, forgot what he was saying. Rambled. Waffled tosh and piffle. When he tried to speak academese, felt as if he were sifting through a sack of grit in search of a grain of sand. The more he reached, the harder it was to locate it. One false word might spill the beans and disclose his true identity, not as a serious doctoral candidate at all, but a pretender, an imposter, someone who was making it up as he went along and hadn’t a hope in hell of getting it done. 

This was the concern he carried with him when he left his house that morning. After four years, he wanted to be done with it. If he failed his viva, the entire purpose of his thesis, to prove he was capable of an elevated consciousness, however limited, a consciousness which was the very foundation of his being, his tentative, tenuous sense of self-worth, was all over. It wasn’t simply his thesis that was under examination, nor his doctoral candidacy, but his very self. His ontological basis, his right to exist. If the examiners believed his thesis lacked critical value, if they called for major revisions, or even minor ones, he did not know whether he would be able to do them. In short, if he failed his viva, he was fucked.

His reasons for starting a PhD, many years after graduating from university, ranged from the pragmatic to the whimsical. He couldn’t afford the course fees for a creative writing masters, and the PhD presented a practical alternative. It might enable him to forge a new career in academia. By meeting new people, it would bring him out of himself, while unlocking something within him creatively, giving credence and succour to the impulses that had always driven him to make art, however naïve or uncultivated. It was an experiment in plasticity, the malleability of his mind, to see if it would cope with the new intellectual environment. There were certain things, concepts and philosophical enquiries, that existed at the fringes of his cognition, the borders of perception, and he wanted to know what those things were. He wanted to see if he could do it. If he had the gumption, the mettle, the Right Stuff.

Because it is there. George Mallory’s famous words about Mount Everest. How often he thought of Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine preparing their climbing equipment and oxygen tanks on the morning of 6 June 1924. That last photograph, taken by expedition geologist Noel Odell at Camp V on the north Col, as the pair readied themselves for their departure to Camp VI, the jumping-off point for their final push to the summit. In their putties and khaki and rudimentary snow-goggles, they looked like two airmen who had been forced to bail out over the Himalayas after an aborted record attempt. The last time the two men were photographed together, and alive. The last time they were seen, in effect. Then they disappeared.

Hyperbole. Writing a thesis was not remotely comparable to conquering Everest. It was just reading and writing. No one would die if he failed.

 

ii.

A few months earlier, after numerous redrafts and proof readings, he had finally submitted his thesis, the culmination and fulfilment of four years of his life, four years in which he switched jobs, left full time employment to become an unemployed househusband, saw the birth of his second child, moved home twice, the second time relocating from London to the Highlands of Scotland, and initiated a renovation project of their new home, which was almost finished. In the last year of his PhD, he was living with his wife’s parents, working on a house renovation during the day, returning home to wash the dust and grime from his body, then eat dinner with the rest of the family, settle the children in bed, then return to the dining table to work at his thesis, and incorporate his supervisors’ suggested changes, the final edits being made after he and his wife moved into their new home, which was still not yet complete. He submitted his PhD one lunchtime in the local library.

For his revisions, he had worked through the thesis chapter by chapter, so he had never had full visibility of its size and shape, the weight of it. Consequently, he never had the chance to behold the thing itself, though he knew by then it was a brick of a thesis, the longest thing he had ever worked on, and at the upper end of the word limit. It was possible he was pushing his luck. He had put everything into it that he possibly could, and was reluctant to take anything out, lest he left a gaping hole, a glaring error, that the examiners would seize upon and use to tear the thing to shreds.  

One hundred thousand words. Four hundred pages. Nothing left out. Nothing left to chance.  

The bulk of the thesis written in their home at 62 Adamsrill Road, in the hours when his children were sleeping, sat in the little box room above the front door, sat on a fold-out plastic chair before a vintage drop leaf table that his wife had picked up at university in Brighton, which had travelled with her to any number of shared houses before settling in at his own, and which is less of a desk than an ergonomic nightmare, barely large enough to accommodate him and his tiny, temperamental laptop, and the scattering of papers and a small stack of books from the library. The room where his son had slept when they first moved in, where black mould formed behind the cardboard boxes they had not yet found the time to unpack, boxes of books and fabric and framed photographs, the room he pulled his son from after the unseen mould ruined his lungs, the cold little room with no radiator or heater, and the air-vent in the wall kept open to prevent damp building up in the winter, where he read and made notes and typed, his breath puffing out in little clouds. He could see out onto the street from the little room, observe the seasons changing around him, the trees coming into leaf and growing bare, the pockmarked puddles when the rain came, the shifting shadows of trees on sunlit days, and the dark winter evenings where he caught sight of himself reflected at the window, lit by the small black desk lamp and the glow of the laptop, distracting him until he let fall the blind, keeping the warmth in and himself out.

Adamsrill Road, a quiet suburban street in Sydenham, south London, with a park at one end and a school at the other. Friendly neighbours. Street parties. Local drug dealers who delivered to the door. And sometimes in that small room, his door closed to his family, he would take cocaine, finding that it helped him focus, kept him motivated and meticulous, though the next day, when he came to read what he had written, he would find sentences without a beginning, middle or an end, shifting tenses, missing clauses and passages which had become overrun with meaningless parataxis, baseless neologisms and unwarranted tautological excursions. Every revision and redraft moving him closer to this idealised version of himself which would only be realised when the thesis was finished. Writing himself into existence.

 

iii.

Modernism. Postmodernism. Metamodernism. Structuralism. Poststructuralism. Deconstruction. Psychoanalysis. Phenomenology. Hermeneutics. Dialogism. Feminism. Neurology.

Hundreds of pages of books and printed journal articles read, considered and critiqued. Thousands of sentences and paragraphs. Millions of words. Billions of letters. The slivers of torn paper used as bookmarks. Passages highlighted, phrases encircled, margins annotated. X-ref. Contra-X. Pertinent things to return to or find a place for in his sprawling thesis.

Among his research cohort, with their fine minds and obscure research areas, some funded, some not, his research felt overly populist, gauche. The reading materials they were given each week felt like a distraction. The Order of Things. We Were Never Modern. The Sense of an Ending. At their weekly meetings in the Keynes Library at Gordon Square, he would sit gnawing his biro, avoiding the chair’s gaze, though he usually could be relied upon to blunder into the discussions with moronic interjections aimed at producing levity. They rarely did. He brought nothing to the table. The problem was not that he did not know, but that he could not remember. This had always been his issue, his terror, one of recall, right back to his first exams. Absorption without assimilation. The weight of silence. After a while he stopped attending, preferring to be home with his wife and children, where he would instead distract himself with low brow, white bread entertainment. Feelgood reality TV shows. The Great British Bake Off. Masterchef. Grand Designs. Programmes that required a significant investment of time. The cultural logic of nostalgia capitalism. Keep calm and carry on.

He often thought about his thesis, where it would fit into the current milieu. There were those who would find some use from it, despite its faults, and others who might take issue with its vulgar obsession with celebrity, its basic reading of theory, praise of normative identities and self-conscious distancing from issues relating to identity politics, race, class or gender. Issues he did not feel capable, nor comfortable, of tackling adequately.

Already he was cognisant that while his research was important to him, it was mostly irrelevant to everyone else. As time wore on, often he felt that there was something else he should have been doing, instead of reading about writing and writing about reading. The two activities felt like a deferral of sorts, a kind of productive procrastination, when what he should have been doing was simply writing. Sifting through the madness. Making it new. Scribe ergo sum ego.

 

iv.

The academic conferences he threw himself into, writing papers or chairing sessions. His papers were light-weight, useful solely for making up the numbers. Stood alone during the coffee breaks, an imposter in their midst. At a conference on the writing of Geoff Dyer, attended by the man himself, a writer he admired, and had met once before, outside a jazz club in Dalston, he floundered during the Q&A before getting into an absurd argument about another academic about whether mortgage debt was as damaging as cocaine addiction. (He thought it was.) A later review of the conference in the Los Angeles Review of Books singled out his paper as a joke. As Dyer sat in the back of the theater, scribbling in his yellow notepad, one could imagine what was going on in his head. The British Association for American Studies conference in Glasgow, where he paid for his travel and AirBnb accommodation, and walked for thirty minutes to the university in drizzle sweeping in from the Clyde estuary, arriving with sodden trousers which he had no way of drying, and which still hadn’t dried out by the time he left, and where he presented his paper to a handful of people.

And his own little conference, on one of the subjects of his thesis, who graciously flew in from the States to hear the papers and read from new work. The conference for which his own work as convenor was entirely unpaid, and which most of the department’s academic fraternity with a passing interest in contemporary literature comprehensively failed to attend. Others came, from St Andrews and Bergen and Augsberg and New York. That evening a handful of speakers went for a drink with the author in an unfamiliar bar somewhere in Bloomsbury, where they shared their incredulity at the possibility of a Trump Presidency. Sat at that table he felt, for the first time, that he was among friends, not members of the academic community. He was melancholic, too, for his supervisor was not there, she was with her husband who was very seriously ill, and he felt great pity for her, and not a little bit of guilt, for he had been hard on her in the weeks running up to the conference, after he had taken too much on and needed her help, without knowing what she was going through, the terrible nights at the hospital, or perhaps he had a little intimation of what was going on but didn’t like to pry, or he knew exactly how it had been with his mother, but didn’t like to say, and when the Dean of Arts, who was sat next to him at the bar, turned to him and asked after his supervisor, he said how sorry he was that she hadn’t been able to join them, the Dean said to him, I know. It’s a terrible shame. He really is a such a lovely guy. She sipped her wine, then added, Supervisors and their students should always look out for one another, something he had failed to do. As Aristotle once said, Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.

 

v.

A year before his oral exam, he flew with his wife to New York to interview the subjects of his thesis, the two married writers in whose work he had become so deeply immersed, it was as if he had assimilated something of their consciousness. After putting on a successful academic conference for one of his subjects, he had chanced his hand and asked for a follow up interview. Incredibly, they accepted. The night before he and his wife were due to fly out, he had celebrated the fact by going for a few drinks with a couple of friends. One thing led to another, and the evening ended with him attempting to get into bed with his wife’s parents, who had agreed to look after the children while they were away, and were sleeping in the main bedroom with him and his wife relegated to the small sofa bed in the living room, a fact he had forgotten when he returned home. A restless night ensued, followed by a hangover so vicious that he was certain he was going to have to get off the crowded train to the airport to throw up.

The flight itself was less eventful, so he was able to relax, if not sleep, thanks in part to American Airlines’ in-flight entertainment. By the time they landed at JFK and slowly, painfully inched their way through the queue for immigration, he was on the point of collapsing from nervous exhaustion, but once they made it to Brooklyn, he felt rejuvenated enough to be able to disembark from the train and walk part of the way to Park Slope, to get the vibe of the place. On the way they stopped at a Lebanese café for the best falafel they’d ever tasted outside of Just Falafs, before continuing to their AirBnb apartment, situated on the very edge of the neighbourhood, nestling against the nondescript neighbourhood of Gowanus, which somehow seemed very apt. They checked in and collected their keys, dumped their bags, then walked back up the slope towards the main drag, finding a pizzeria and sharing a margherita the size of Prospect Park, before returning back to their accommodation, resolving to have an early night ahead of his big day interviewing two notable writers.

At four am they were woken by a loud hissing sound, which appeared to be coming from the squat, four column cast-iron radiator positioned beneath the room’s small window. When he crouched next to it to turn it down, he discovered that it was boiling hot, and missing the control valve which would. Certain that at any moment he and his wife would be showered in scalding, pressurised water, they lay in bed with the duvet drawn up to their chins, hopeful that the hissing might abate and permit them to return to sleep. When it didn’t, they instead dressed and left the apartment to find a diner for breakfast. It was six am. 

After breakfast they decided to go their separate ways. There was still plenty of time to kill before his appointment with the writers. His wife went to rifle through some thrift stores, and he walked to Prospect Park. It was unseasonably warm for early December in New York. He had expected it to be much colder, and soon began to overheat in his heavy winter coat. The stoops of several Brownstones were adorned with Christmas decorations, which now looked incongruous in the warm, slanted sun. There was something wrong about it, he thought, the heat presaged darkness and ruin. To collect his thoughts, he decided to walk through the park. A fun run was about to get underway, and somewhere in the centre of the park ‘Felize Navidad’ was playing through loudspeakers, echoing across the grassy recreation area. Wherever he looked, runners were milling around and limbering up, several with a look of sinewy determination beneath their headbands.

Desperate for a bathroom after multiple refills of watery coffee in the diner, he snuck into one of the runners’ portaloos to relieve himself. He had only intended to take a short stroll, but because some of the pathways had been closed for the run, he ended up walking much further than originally planned, losing his bearings as he tried to get back on track. When he reached the LeFrak Centre in the south eastern corner of the lake, he realised he had gone much too far, and looped back up to the northern end towards the library, as the race leaders began to zip past him. Eventually, he arrived in front of the Art Deco façade of Brooklyn’s Public Library. Huge gilded figures overlooked the entrance, with smaller literary icons welded to the bronze doors. He was completely knackered. After visiting the toilet one last time, he found the fiction section and flopped down at a desk and tried to prepare for the interview. Taking a break to look through the fiction collection, he found several titles by the man, but only one by the woman. He told himself that they were out on loan. Large black and white portraits of the borough’s most famous authors lined the upper walls of the fiction section, a good number of whom he knew and had read, among them the brooding countenance of one of the authors he was about to interview, the man, warning him, wordlessly, not to screw it up.  

His biliousness from the day before returned, which he put down to his nervousness and fatigue, rather than an ongoing consequence of his overindulgence before the flight. After leaving the library, he met his wife for lunch at the Bagel Market a few blocks away. He had zero appetite, but knew he had to eat something as he was feeling lightheaded, so he had a lox and cream cheese bagel, an impulse purchase which sounded suitably indigenous, but which he immediately regretted. He was so tired he could barely speak to his wife. All he could think about was being back in bed.

She wished him good luck and he kissed her goodbye, before walking back up the main street, now busy with post-lunch shoppers and hipster couples buying Christmas trees. It was still too hot. They ought to have been buying ice creams. As he waited to cross the street, he spotted the English actor Jack Davenport approaching him, Miles from This Life, now middle aged, wearing a cap and leading his son by the hand, followed by his wife, the Scottish actor Michelle Gomez. He was sorry his wife wasn’t there to see them. Passing a florist, he decided to buy a bunch of long-stemmed white lilies, lilium casa blanca, for his hosts, then continued to the address he had been given, walking up the slight rise past a row of imposing, upgraded Brownstones. When he reached the address, he realised he was far too early, so circled the block. On his second pass, he hesitantly ascended the stoop and rang the bell. Waited. The woman answered the door, smiling and he handed her the lilies.

By the time he left, it was dark. His wife was waiting for him a block or so away. They kissed and she slid her arm through his, asked him how it went. As they walked, the streets seemed softer underfoot somehow, or perhaps it was that his body had become lighter, as if a great weight had been lifted from it, leaving him on the point of levitation, like Walter Clairborn Rawley, the protagonist of Mr. Vertigo. Looking for somewhere to eat, they found an upmarket trattoria wedged into the ground floor of a Brownstone. It was still warm enough for outside dining, the hubbub of conversation rising and falling as they walked into the restaurant, where an ingratiating manager greeted them, taking their coats and making them feel important. Beloved. He wondered if the writers dined there. Perhaps it was their favourite restaurant. Then he looked around at the tables of animated Brooklynites. It was quite possible that all the other diners were writers. Or artists, or actors, or gallery directors. It was Park Slope, after all.

There were no tables available in the restaurant, but the manager found them two seats at the bar, where he and his wife continued talking over a sumptuous bottle of Montepulciano, plates of antipasti, bowls of ravioli di zucca and risotto pugliese, a tiramisu with two spoons and two espressos. A celebratory meal. Decadent by their standards. This was how their relationship had first unfolded, face-to-face in dimly-lit restaurants, while the polyphony of other conversations encircled them, before the last train home and urgently undressing, before marriage and parenthood arrived and exhausted them, limited their conversations to difficult discussions about frustrating children and ailing parents, work and money, sex.

He came to in the faded grey light of the bedroom. The apartment was quiet. The radiator had now been fixed by their host’s boyfriend. She left them an apologetic note with a couple of consolatory craft beers. He rolled over to his wife and nuzzled against her, kissed her neck, and she rolled onto her back and kissed him. Her breath was faintly sour. He kissed her breasts and stomach, and continued downwards, but she batted him away as he neared the frills of her underwear. Don’t, she said, cradling his head. I’m too tired. And I need a shower. He stopped. They lay in bed for another hour. Then he got out of bed and went to the bathroom.

After breakfast, they decided to walk into Manhattan, threading a route through Gowanus and DUMBO and over the Brooklyn Bridge. Another day untroubled by cloud. Walking beside his wife, a kind of melancholy took hold of him, and he stopped talking, only speaking to give short responses to her queries. In his mind, he was back in Amsterdam, some twenty years earlier, on a trip with a former girlfriend, a meeting which when they had bought the flights and booked the accommodation they had referred to as a dirty weekend, but which had turned out to be nothing of the sort once they arrived in the Dutch capital. Save for an awkward sexual encounter on the first night, they hadn’t touched each other all weekend, despite sharing a bed the spare room of a Dutch lady’s house, the cheapest accommodation they could find, an hour on foot from the centre. It was November, and that weekend it rained constantly. After that confusing first night, he lapsed into mutism. They bought some skunk in a coffeeshop, and stumbled around in a stoned stupor, him wondering why on earth he was there, why he hadn’t made the trip with someone else, and knowing for certain that their dalliance, which had originated during his season in the French Alps, continued when he gate-crashed a seasonnaires reunion in the Cyclades, and culminated in his following her home to Cornwall, where he lived with her and her mother in a ramshackle terraced house in Lostwithiel, spoiling their bijou lifestyle and souring the atmosphere with his sulks and strops, all because he was paranoid she would meet someone else and quickly forget about him. A short-lived, destructive romance, which was finally, undeniably, mercifully over. No doubt, her gratitude was far greater than his.

During those years of involuntary celibacy as a young man, when he wanted desperately to meet someone, but had been incapable of attracting the opposite sex, he had taken comfort in the fact that he believed himself to be different from other men. The barmaid-bothering, beer-swilling, crotch-grabbing, manspreading, mansplaining members of his fraternity. I’m not like other guys, he would tell himself, trying not to sound like Michael Jackson. He was right. He wasn’t like other guys. He was worse. While other men took pride in unreconstructed dickishness, he tried to hide it, pretend it didn’t exist, or when it revealed itself, he would excuse it as part and parcel of his thwarted creativity. The tortured artist fallacy. Being a failed artist didn’t make him any less of a dick. His dickishness was no less egregious, no less pernicious, than that characterised by the odious orange blancmange who was about to assume the office of the Presidency, a gurning, griping man-baby who strutted around like he had been crafted from gristle, jism and cheap silicone, a post-coital condom in a Brioni suit, who had been carried into office on a wave of masculine rage by all the other men who were unable to quell their discomfort, their pain, at being born with their balls in place of their brains.

Men like him. For when push came to shove, they were all the same. White men rampaged across the globe, cracking skulls and laying pillage, enslaving and othering. What was it de Beauvoir said about his breed? Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth. Failure of the imagination. The white man’s burden.

The Sunday streets were evacuation-quiet as they proceeded to Manhattan, walking abreast of each another without speaking, the distance between them growing greater with each step. His wife was perhaps imagining herself a New Yorker, but he didn’t ask her to find out. Instead, he was back in the rain of Amsterdam, stalking the circular streets with their treacherous cobbles, dark canals and looming trams. As they neared the apex of the Brooklyn Bridge, thronged with sightseers, his wife asked him to take her photograph, and he refused, gesturing towards the other tourists who were doing the same. It’s a fucking cliché, he said. He knew he was being horrible. He didn’t care. The fault for that morning’s schism lay entirely with him, his incapability of reconciling being present within a given moment or being too present within it. His bipolarity, oscillating from hypomania to dysphoria in a matter of moments, varied from day to day, becoming increasingly acute at times of stress. Perhaps it was not failure he was afraid of after all, but success, or happiness, knowing that after the dopamine high came the depressive crash. The rebalancing. The evening out. The fall. 

They walked beyond the apex of the bridge and down into the financial district of Wall Street towards the 9/11 memorial plaza, the final destination of his ill-tempered psychogeography. He had never visited pre-9/11 New York. He saw the attacks on the TV at his parent’s house, during that lengthy post-university interregnum. The last time he and his wife had been in the city, for his thirtieth birthday almost a decade ago, they had passed the graffitied hoardings of Ground Zero, behind which the memorial was still under construction, its costs supposedly spiralling out of control. The name given to the memorial by its architects was Reflecting Absence. Now, as he moved through the crowd and stood over one of the immense waterfalls, watched the water descending into the square void, pouring down in a silver curtain, and as he scanned the names of the victims engraved on the parapet, the one or two commemorated with a single flower, he thought about everything that had occurred which had brought this memorial into being, the innocent lives devastated and destroyed by needless acts perpetuated by men, and he came face to face with his own complicity. His complicity, and his insignificance.

 

vi.

As the plane banked on its final approach to Gatwick, from his aisle seat he caught a glimpse of Sussex fields bathed in the soft amber light of the rising sun. The trees were just starting to turn. He had left the Highlands on the cusp of winter, while England was still casting off last days of summer. When he emerged from the Underground at Euston, the air was warm and heavy, almost balmy, reminding him of being in Paris, or even New York the previous December, but not London. It was like stepping into an old photograph, everything unchanged and in its rightful place, except him, a man out of time, coming up for air. Back from the dead.

Ahead of the viva, he met his supervisors for coffee in a small basement café just not from Gordon Square. Both were enthusiastic about his thesis and seemed to have a confidence in him, and his research, which he himself did not have, and which he was certain he would not be able to live up to. The three of them walked back to the university, and he made his way up to the Keynes Library, the site of his cohort meetings and his conference, the high water mark of his time in academia. Then the examiners arrived, two male professors with ornithological surnames, one skinny and tall, the other stocky and short. A double act. Vaudeville. Good cop, bad cop. Tango and Cash. Their very presence in the room, benign and personable as they were, was nevertheless highly intimidating, and his entire body tensed as they busied themselves with the. Both placed a copy of his bound thesis on the table in front of them. Side by side they looked enormous, an obscene amount of paper for a spurious case, like the court papers for Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and he imagined either would do serious damage if used as a weapon, though they would probably be more useful lying at the bottom of a swimming pool, waiting to be retrieved by a child in their pyjamas, or as drawing paper for his young children, the extant fate of his many redrafts.

After the cursory introductions, things began to happen quite quickly. Already he was quaking in his chair. First, some general questions to soften him up. Why did you choose? What made you decide? Can you explain? Questions which were easy enough to deal with. This is a piece of cake, he thought. Then they turned the screw. Give us a definition. An example. Show us where you prove. He hesitated. Prevaricated. Vacillated. Now he was failing, he knew it. They could smell the fear on him. His armpits grew damp, and he struggled to maintain eye contact. Gonna burst into flames! They moved in for the kill. The portly examiner riffed the pages of the thesis. This thesis is far, far too long. It was, and he couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned. You should never use secondary sources in a PhD dissertation! Why on earth hadn’t his supervisors told him that? I’m not convinced that you fully get to grips with Lacan. How he hated that bastard Lacan. And there are quite a few punctuation errors. We’ve made a list. He and his wife had both proofed the thesis. That was that, then. He was screwed. They asked him to leave so they could decide his fate. We will call you back in a few minutes.

Dismantling his thesis had taken them little more than an hour. He sat on the stairs outside the Keynes Room and put his head in his hands. He was convinced he had failed, or that he was looking at major corrections. Six months to a year of additional work. He thought about how he would have to apologise to his supervisors and his wife. Six months to a year. It was like a prison sentence. He wasn’t sure if he could do it.

He went to the toilet. When he came back down, they were waiting for him. Ready to go another round. He returned to his chair. Gathered himself. Prepared to take notes. The portly examiner addressed him.

Thank you for your time today, I know that you have a flight to catch, so I’ll keep this brief. There are a few problems with this thesis, but I think these could be resolved with some additional work. The main things to think about would be reducing the size. Then addressing the secondary sources. Return to the original texts, which we see you have used elsewhere. Your reading of Lacan, which is generally sound, could be more sophisticated. And then the typos that we mentioned need to be corrected.

He stopped taking notes and put his pen down. Are we talking major or minor corrections here?

The examiner looked puzzled for a moment. Then he laughed. Minor corrections. I’m sorry. I should have made it clear when you came back in. You’ve passed. This is an excellent thesis. What I’m describing are issues which you absolutely should address if you decide to turn the thesis into a monograph. Which we think that you absolutely could.

Certain chapters are very strong, added his colleague.

Very strong. And the typos will obviously need to be corrected. But the thesis itself is of pass standard. And we are both satisfied that you have successfully defended it today. He extended his hand across the table. Congratulations, Doctor.

Congratulations, Doctor.  

Afterwards he went for a drink with his supervisors at the Euston Tap. It didn’t feel real. It felt as if it had happened to someone else. Someone good. He stayed for one drink, then left to catch his flight back home, where he drank a bottle of prosecco, and went to bed. The next morning, he was back at the house in Hopeman, slightly hungover, kneeling on the wet law, pulling weeds out of the flowerbed with his fingers.

In the Mountains, There You Feel Free #4 by Alex Williamson

He first learns that the boy who lies is getting married when the best man, the boy with pinned back ears, sends everyone a group email about the stag do. After moving to Scotland, contact with his oldest friends lapses into silence, or if not exactly silence, long periods of static noise. Most communication with them passes through the filter of a WhatsApp group, a repository of toxic banter, pornographic GIFs and various memes of an African man with a two foot long penis. Things they wouldn’t want anyone else to see, particularly not their wives.

The announcement of nuptials does not exactly come as a surprise, but it has been some time since he heard from the stag, or the best man. 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. It was not a successful trip. He missed his flight home after taking MDMA a few hours beforehand, had a panic attack outside Ushuaïa, and ended up coming home a day late to a very wife.

The best man’s email informs them that 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. All-in, the cost per head is phenomenal, even exceeding that last debauched trip to Ibiza. Any ambivalence he has about the stag weekend is counterbalanced by the possible ramifications of not going. He cannot understand why the stag wants to go to a ski festival when hardly any members of the stag party can ski. Perhaps the point is moot. They will not be there to ski. Knowing that he will almost certainly regret it, he confirms by email that he will be there, and 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 pays a forfeit. It takes him a fortnight to settle the balance, something he is only able to by dipping into his children’s savings.

Shortly after the balance is settled, and the opportunity to back out gone, 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 must 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 history of lying, 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. 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? Fucking hell. How’ve you managed to do that? I don’t know. I checked in online, and left it – it doesn’t matter, please can you try to get it for me? Bloody hell. Alright. Thanks.

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, 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 dancefloor, 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 men who do not have cocaine on their faces enjoying their lunch. 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 by Alex Williamson

Be happy with what you have.

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.

 

iv.

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.

 

v.

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.

 

vi.

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.

 

 

vii.

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.

 

viii.

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.

 

 

ix.

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.

 

x.

His father wasn’t a violent man. Never abusive, nor an alcoholic, nor a drug addict. They didn’t live in fear of him. 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.

 

xi.

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.

 

 xii.

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 by Alex Williamson

A brotherhood of man.

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, this is what he has long assumed to be his earliest memory, but now, entering his fifth decade, he is unsure if there is any truth to it. It 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. When he focuses on the memory, it disappears almost entirely from view. Was it just after his brother was born, or after his brother was readmitted to hospital with gastro-intestinal reflux, which prevented him from taking his mother’s milk? Did his father make the journey? Was he even in the car? He does not know. Still he clings to it. His father is driving, and he is bouncing on the backseat. 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. 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 are 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 chasing 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, or any other pets. He does not have many other friends. Hitting the dog was his idea.

 

iii.

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. A teacher opening the crisp pages of a new book. Olive-coloured coarse paper towels. Lessons under trees on summer days. Country dancing on the parquet floor of the large assembly hall. Sunlight pouring through windows smeared by small, greasy hands. The Nativity play in which he had a starring role, the sheets containing his highlighted lines, and the spotlight shining in his face so he can’t see his parents. The names of the Three Wise Men. I’m Melchior / I’m Caspar / and I am Balthazar. The wilderness area with the soft gorse and their furry seed husks. Scurrying small beetles. The mechanics of a ladybird in flight. 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 comes out of the sun to kiss him on the face. A girl whose name he does not know.

 

 

 

iv.

Aged five or six. He and another boy are led from their classroom by the teacher and sat at a table in the corridor. The teacher explains to them that a new boy will be join the class today, and that she would like them to help him settle in. After a little while, the new boy is brought to the table by the teacher. He 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 he has never heard of. He tells him he likes Liverpool. 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.

 

v.

Aged eight or nine. He and the boy with big ears are now good friends. Best friends, perhaps. They sit on the same table at school, alongside two or three of the more popular girls in their year. He likes this table and enjoys school. Their teacher is a stout Norwegian woman who smells like smoke. A friend of his grandmother. She looks upon him favourably. The boy with the big ears is no longer the new boy, but a popular boy in his year, infamous for getting into trouble. Answering teachers back. Bending the school’s rules. Sometimes this gets him into trouble too. Occasionally he and the boy with big ears fall out. One day, for a lark, he puts a drawing pin on his friend’s chair. After sitting on it, his friend comes around to his side of the table and upends his seat, leaving him lying on the floor. He gets up quickly before the teacher sees. The boy with the big ears doesn’t speak to him for the rest of the morning, but by the end of the day they have patched things up. And that is how things go, for the next thirty years.

 

vi.

He and the boy with the big ears are stood before a full-length mirror in the dark hallway at his parents’ house. It is after school, and they are still in their school uniform. He has asked the boy with the sticking out 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 now. Using mousse from his mothers’ hairdressing kit, the boy rubs the mouse into his blonde hair with his hands, before attempting to style it with a hairdressing brush. His hair resists and reverts 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. It is an intimacy unlike that which he shares with his parents. 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 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, a white South African expat. The other boy is faster than he, and he has no chance of catching him, but when they reach the playground, he flicks out his foot at the boy’s trailing leg, tripping him and sending him sprawling across the tarmac, until he comes to rest in a heap. His school jumper is crumpled, and his face a mess of blood and tears. As the dinner ladies gently lift the crying boy off the ground, he realises with horror what he has done, and 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. His mother picks him up and takes him to hospital, where an x-ray confirms the wrist is broken. As you can see, it splintered like a sapling, the doctor says. Disappointingly, he is given a cast with a mesh bandage, meaning his friends will not be able to sign it. While he is still in the cast, a bigger boy by the name of Jude pushes him over on the playing fields. The boy with the sticking out ears comes to his rescue him, throws the other boy to the floor and squashes his face into the dirt.

 

viii.

Aged eight or nine. At the home of the boy with 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 has gone, 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 big ears 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 white 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, he bleats an apology as he backs out of the room. He finds his friend in his bedroom.

 

ix.

Aged eight or nine. Summer holidays. At the home of the chubby boy with the straw-coloured hair, playing in his bedroom. The smell of warm cooking 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 eats 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 and threatening, but ultimately ineffectual at silencing the boy with straw-coloured hair. He eats his own dinner without saying a word, recognising that his friend is putting on a show for his benefit. If he were 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 feels afraid.

 

x.

Aged nine or ten. His mother allows him to bring a friend over after school. Another new friend, a boy who has not long 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, and he is spoiled. He and the boy with the crescent moon hand 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 forthright in his opinions. He is also overweight. This makes him an easy target. At some point, the boy with the crescent moon hand 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 the play continues.

 

xi.

There is another friend. A gentler boy. The youngest of four brothers. Once a wearer of glasses. Considerate and polite. 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. The brother is a placid soul, with a gregarious personality and somewhat slurred speech, which reminds him a little of his paternal grandfather. His friend’s brother attends their school but is taught in a special class, one for children with learning difficulties. His other friend, his best friend, the boy with the big ears, likes to impersonate the disabled brother for the amusement of his classmates. 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 acquired the habit of turning up on his doorstep unexpectedly. Sometimes before school. One morning, 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. His friend asks him if he would like to buy the game. He is very persuasive, so he agrees. The next day asks his mother for the money to buy it. At school, he tells his best friend, the boy with the 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. The boy with the crescent moon returns his money. A little later, the boy with the crescent moon hand starts bullying his brother at school. He tells his other friends about this, and the next lunchtime they find the boy with the crescent moon hand 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 among his friends of fancying members of the opposite sex. 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 one of the more popular boys. One day, the girl with the pale skin takes a shine 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. On Christmas Eve they bring a copy of Freddie’s Nightmares to his house, but he is too scared to watch it, and they end up back at one of the girl’s houses watching Labyrinth in her bedroom, throwing mistletoe at each other and exchanging chaste kisses. After Christmas she takes up with an older boy. In the spring, he finds a new girlfriend. A Brosette. Brunette. Faintly chubby. He likes the press of her body against his. The way her fingernails dig into his ribcage when she puts her arm around him. Her soft lips. Warm kisses. The first inkling of something not yet permitted.

xiv.

A few weeks after his eleventh birthday, he begins secondary school. When his father learns which House he has been allocated, he writes to the Headmaster and asks that his son be moved to his old House. Nevertheless, he begins school with some enthusiasm, rising early and proudly donning his new school uniform, but it is a boys’ school, and the threat of violence is ever-present, not least among the unknown boys of his year. There are many disruptive boys in the year, whose only interests appear to be fighting. He also learns to avoid the parts of the school where threatening older boys loiter, waiting to prey on unsuspecting first years. The over-confident boy of primary school becomes an anonymous, nervous first year. He misses the Brosette, their amorous perambulations around the playground. 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. With his other friends, he makes new friends, but the constellations of friendship already reconfiguring. He clings to that which is familiar, to those who make him feel secure. Safe. Protected.

 

xv.

The summer of his first year. With other boys from their form, he and his friends goad older boys into chasing them at lunchtime. They stand at a safe distance to shout Get your little maggot out, until the older boys give chase and they scatter. Occasionally one of their number gets caught. They’re usually put in a headlock for a few moments. Being a coward, he stays well back. One lunchtime, sometime in the late spring, they target a group of hard-looking fourth years. One of the fourth years manages to grab a classmate by the scruff of his neck, but one of the tougher boys in their year steps between them and quickly overwhelms the older boy with his fists. He has something to prove. In the early weeks of September, the hardest boys from each primary school have been fighting each other to establish their dominance over the year. His friend with the straw hair had started to fight this boy, before backing out. It is one of the more brutal fights he has witnessed in his short time at the school, and the first time he has seen a younger boy beat up an older boy. The other boys from his form are jubilant. He doesn’t like it. It is against the order of things.

 

xvi.

A few weeks later, on a hot day in June, he and a group of other boys tie a classmate to a tree on the school fields and pull the boy’s trousers down. They poke at his private parts with sticks, and someone hangs a coke can on his penis. After school, 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 big ears. When asked to corroborate this, he agrees, even though, in truth, he cannot say for certain who it was. It may even have been him. No one knows anymore. After he goes home and tells his mother what has happened, she writes a letter to the headmaster, begging him not to suspend him. He evades punishment. His best friend, the boy with the big ears, visits the headmaster with his parents and narrowly avoids being suspended.

 

xvii.

He lies to save his own skin, because he is afraid, and ashamed. He was one of those poking at the private parts of the boy who had been tied up. And in his confusion, he mistakenly places another friend at the scene, the considerate boy who used to wear glasses, who in fact wasn’t even 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. Unlike him, his friend knows his own mind. However, the boy with the big ears and the boy with the straw hair form a new allegiance which is explicitly against him, their former friend. Everyone is angry with him, it seems, and he senses a permanent rupture in their little fraternity. That night, the considerable boy phones him to reassure him that they are still friends. He is grateful to his friend. No one thinks about the boy they tied up, who has been off school since it happened. His indignity and humiliation. By the time he returns to school, the matter is considered closed.

 

xviii.

His form is a haven for misfits. Rare is the lesson without one of their number spending its duration out in the corridor. The entire form is put on report. He quickly learns to keep his mouth shut. Stay out of trouble. Even with his blonde hair, his relative anonymity ensures that he is not bullied or beaten up by older boys, but within his form his eldest friend, the boy with the straw hair, has established his own small fiefdom, a hierarchy of fraternity in which their friendship is predicated upon sycophancy. This causes him the greatest anxiety. When his best friend, the boy with the 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 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, a request he ignores as he rams the boy’s head into a locker. A cheap shot. His hackles are up. When he lets him go, the boy with pinned back ears punches him in the face, and he falls backwards, dazed. Someone lifts him up, ready to push him back into the fray, but another boy announces that a teacher is coming. He is saved. They pick up their bags and go their separate ways.

 

xix.

Pornography fever takes hold. More for amusement than arousal. Some boys bring in softcore magazines with titles like Men Only, Men’s World, Club. During lessons they take them from their bags and wave them in the air 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. He has never seen a vagina before and can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Later that year, a classmate ups the ante when he raids his elder brother’s hardcore pornography collection. At lunchtime, said classmate and a handful of boys are caught in possession of a magazine, the cover of which is a photograph of a brunette woman sucking on the tumescent penis of a faceless man. The magazine is called Snobs. The boys are carpeted by a balding, bespectacled deputy head with a notoriously fearsome temper, who is so furious that his face turns puce and the thinning strands of his hair stand on end. When he waves the magazine at them, it had been inserted it into a clear plastic sheath, lest its contents corrupt the very sanctity of the school. The boys are given detentions, and the deputy head keeps the magazine.

 

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 considerate boy, who from time to time finds himself pulled back into the cycle of mistrust and stupidity. For Christmas, they each receive bikes from their respective parents. He thinks this will make them like The Goonies, but it 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 sold by the local shop. When he and his other friends receive less expensive bikes, this gives the boy with the straw hair much to crow about. Everything is a competition for the boy with the straw hair, whose family do not own a car or a telephone. 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 disables the brakes on the boy with the pinned back ear’s bike, in the hope that he will crash into his garage door when he gets home.

 

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 least balanced boys in his form takes out his penis and starts masturbating under his desk. In PE and games, he furtively records the other boys’ development, comparing it to his own. Some boys in his form have already entered puberty, including the boy with the straw hair, who displays his negligible armpit hair like a preening silverback. For him, puberty seems a long way off, and he remains as hairless as a Sphynx cat. His only solace is that the boy with the pinned back ears shares this misfortune. A year later, a few of his friends describe to him the joys of masturbation. When he experiments at home, despite repeated attempts, he is thwarted by 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 thinks he is just about to climax, when the first of several pebbles thrown by his father, who is out in the garden, pings against the window frame.

 

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 a large scar on the Indian boy’s ribcage, and the Indian boy tells him was caused by a slate thrown by a former classmate. 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 his ambition of following his father into medicine. 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 some boys on their way home. After a playground argument escalates and he is beaten up, the Indian boy slips quietly out of their social group, and makes new friends.

 

xxiii.

His interests are guided by his friend’s interests. Their likes are his likes. He follows their lead. Through them he becomes aware of certain clothing brands. Joe Bloggs. Mr Scruff. Bodily self-conscious, as his refuses to yield to puberty, he buys a chest-expander, and stands before his mirror each night, cranking the springs. In the winter, they go to a youth club run by a couple who go to chapel with his grandparents, where they mimic the signature moves of WWF characters on the crash mats. He likes one of the girls who sometimes goes, a blonde twin, and sends her a Valentine’s Day Card via a go-between. He learns she has a boyfriend in the year above. That summer, he and his friends compete in a series of high stakes 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 wary of the boy with the straw hair and curtail their games. When he finally manages to defeat the boy with the straw hair, after months of trying, his friend smashes his racquet into the net.

 

xxiv.

With his friends he tries out for the local cricket club’s youth team. The team is run by the doctor who conducted his preschool physical examination, and a coach whose cousin played for England. For some reason, the coach insists the team must practice with tennis balls, but when they play against teams more familiar with the flight and weight of a cricket ball, they are routed. The boy with the straw 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 being hurt by 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 merely confirms his limitations as a cricketer. One afternoon, after arranging to go to the cricket nets with the boy with the straw hair at school, he comes home to find that their elderly dog had to be put down. Later, when bowling to his friend, he has a flashbulb memory of how the two of them 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 hair. It is not the first time, but it is the last. 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 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 the pale lanky boy with brown curtains and the baby-faced boy who is annoyingly good at cricket and golf and the boy who plays paintball at the weekend 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. Scrappy-Doo in human form. His father is a market trader, and he has a fearsome-looking 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. Joe is a scrubber. With Joe he feels more confident. More himself. When he spends Sports Day glued to Joe’s side, he is called a lamb by his other friends, who bleat at him. Finding him alone in the changing room afterwards, they mock him further, and when one squares up to him, he is certain he is going to be beaten up. He changes quickly and slinks away.

 

xxvii.

At the weekend he joins Joe and the other teenagers who loiter in a leisure centre car park, smoking and spitting and sharing the high percentage alcohol acquired by older-looking peers. Thunderbird. Gold Label. Two Dogs. MD 20 20. One Saturday, he and Joe and their Mauritian friend, along with a group of other lads, gather in a local park to get drunk before the monthly disco at the leisure centre. He drinks a three litre bottle of cider in under an hour. A girl from the year below, not quite his girlfriend, helps him inside, and they spend the rest of the night French kissing to thumping Europop. Her tongue is salty and persuasive. He works one hand under her bra, and another into her knickers. After the disco, he is bragging about this with another friend when he hears his father shout his name from across the car park. Once in the car, his father tells him he stinks of booze, and he tells him someone spiked his drink. At home, he throws up on the stairs, and then again when his mother is putting him to bed.

 

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 prior experience 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 loneliness, it is Joe who consoles him, putting his arm around him and telling him 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. More experienced, better looking, stronger, taller, older brothers. But he knows they don’t love him back. Nor can he say for certain that they even like him. There is always the risk of being cast out. His friends are like strangers from within. Sometimes he feels as if Joe is the one person who likes him for who he is, even though, in his heart of hearts, he knows that they won’t remain friends after school. Joe has no plans to stay in school after his GCSEs. Once he leaves, they will fall out of touch. And after they fall out of touch, Joe will be killed at the age of twenty-three when his car crashes into a tree.

 

 

xxix.

In GSCE English, they are reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He learns 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. He sees it in the school. Fault-lines cleave its fabric like subsidence cracks in a brick façade. A spider-diagram of difference. 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 spies 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, his reluctance, his physique. 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 infuriating. When his brother comes up from primary school, two twins continue to bully him. After his brother come home from a disastrous first years’ trip to Conwy, he tracks down the twins as they wait for form registration the next morning. 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, for a while.

 

xxxi.

He and his friends decide to camp out in a small wood on the outskirts of town. They have camped out in back gardens, but this will be the first time wild camping, 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. As they approach the wood, he notices a car pull up behind them, and a man who looks like his father gesturing at them. At the wood’s edge, he discovers the remains of a sheep which has become entangled in a barbed wire fence and died. 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 firelight. Strangers from within. 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, but he offers little in the way of apology or recompense. When he gets home, his father asks him where he has been.

xxxii.

Aged fifteen, in his bedroom. He is teaching himself to juggle. Supposedly he is revising for his GSCE exams, but he is unable to focus. 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. On results day he learns that he has juggled his way to three As, three Bs and three Cs. An imperfect symmetry. 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 at their own failed grades, as if celebrating a goal for the national football team.

 

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. He knows how much is at stake being there. 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, slurred lyrics from ‘Born Slippy’ wafting up into the night. It is as though he has stepped into a new world.

 

xxxiv.

In late September, the entire lower sixth head to York University for an A-level orientation weekend. Cutting over the morbid, fog-occluded Pennines in their coach, they pitch up in the cold, clammy city. He likes the university campus with its austere buildings and bland interiors, 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, after an entirely innocuous exchange with the landlord of the Lower Chequer, who knows his father, he is barred from the pub.

 

xxxv.

In the autumn, auditions are held for the annual stage production directed by the rotund deputy head with a furious temper. This year it is O! What a Lovely War. He joins the boy with the pinned back ears and the other A-level drama students. Flushed with self-confidence after the week in Cornwall, he experiments with several European accents, and is cast, somewhat incongruously, as both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sir John French. He discovers that being a passable mimic is not the same as being a passable actor, and as rehearsals move from being a great game to a matter of life and death, he develops a stress migraine which lasts right up until the latter stages of dress rehearsal. The migraine is so debilitating that he contemplates pulling out, but for his fear of the deputy head, who like a porcine Major is capable of such spectacularly explosive bollockings, that he has no choice but to soldier on. Miraculously, by the opening night the flu disappears, and he makes it through the four performances without forgetting his lines, and with his voice cracking mid-performance only the once. Nevertheless, he has survived.

 

xxxvi.

One half of A-level English is taught by a Liverpudlian NQT in his early twenties, the owner of a convertible VW Golf, and Britpop fan. He invites the boys to play the rest of the class a sample of their favourite song, before analysing its lyrical content. Deep into a maudlin nostalgia trip through Eighties pop culture, he chooses ‘Girls on Film’ by Duran Duran, while others choose Oasis, Blur, Pulp. In these classes, he first experiencing a series of epiphanies, as if his consciousness is exploding. This half of the syllabus focuses on what he terms real literature. 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 Woolfish blonde woman, also in her twenties, with whom he fails to build a rapport, a problem exacerbated by the more polarising texts of her lessons, texts of subtle complexity offering a rebuttal to the heavily masculinised literary canon. Wuthering Heights. Streetcar. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Christina Rossetti. Texts which he lacks the emotional maturity to fully comprehend. A group of them borrow a trolley from her room, and take it into the common room, where they take turns riding on it like a pedal car, until a teacher walks in just as his friend, the boy with the pinned back ears, crashes into the wall.

xxxvii.

He is no more comfortable in the company of the opposite sex than he is his own. He likes one of the girls from the drama production, the sister of a friend who possesses his favoured physical proportions, but after she signals her lack of interest by getting off with the Brosette’s former boyfriend, he invites two other girls to the Sixth Form Ball, neither of which pans out. He has little joy elsewhere. The nearest nightclub is Valentino’s, in Hanley, several miles from their hometown, a minibus or coach ride away. Vallies is a relic of his parents’ courting days, a sticky-carpeted meat market screaming out for a visit from the Hitman and Her. Things have come full circle in clubland. Each week they board a coach and guzzle bottles of Metz and WKD on their way to this sexual Xanadu. Other boys circulate round the dancefloor in a testosterone-fuelled danse macabre, grinding up against the vulnerable backsides of willing and unwilling girls, the law of averages yielding occasional success. Depressed and lachrymose, he frequently leaves the club before the lights come up, once as soon as he arrived, calling his mother to come and bring him home. Otherwise he sits outside, waiting for the club to close so he can hitch a ride with his friends. 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, his scant regard for Conservative Party policy finds it way into their round-table discussions. In the dying days of the Major government, he and other politics students travel by train to London, where they first visit the Imperial War Museum, then head to the Houses of Parliament for Prime Minister’s Questions. It is a surreal experience, watching the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition slug it out 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, set in train by the watching cameras. 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. Theirs is a safe seat after all. The head of history says nothing, but entering their classroom on the morning of New Labour’s landslide victory, he greets his class with a smile, and says, Things already feel a bit better, don’t they lads?

 

xxxix.

When he returns to Cornwall with his friends the next summer, he has a complete emotional breakdown. Things augur ill from the start of the week, when they drive down to Newquay in a convoy of cars. His Mauritian friend is joined by his girlfriend, and some of those unfortunate few who were excluded the year before, make the trip. 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. The collegiate mood of the previous trip fragments, and a  series of intra-fraternal pranks culminate in the ransacking of their caravan. When the two groups face off, it is only the laughable ridiculousness of the situation stops them coming to blows. Feeling marginalised and isolated after another evening of excessive drinking in the caravan, he starts a vicious, recriminatory argument with the boy with the pinned-back ears. After exchanging insults, he takes himself to bed, where he is woken a little while later by his friend sitting on his chest and pushing against his throat. The others pull them apart, and he lets his mouth run off again. He is unable to stop, until he does, and breaks down in tears, for the first time since that night with Joe. He wants desperately to be someone else. Not himself. A person incapable of being normal.

 

xxxx.

His school identifies 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 misreads as 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, what he takes to be a benevolent comment is instead used to highlight his shortcomings. Politics of a different kind.

  

xxxxi.

The politics and foreign languages 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 a Belgian army outfit. By the time the film finishes, several of the boys are pissed, and one of their number passes out in the public toilets. All the boys are sent to their cabins. When they arrive in Strasbourg, a few 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 are released. Promised a visit to the trenches of Ypres on the way home, they arrive too late in Ieper, only having time to glance round the small museum. By the time the Last Post sounds, the coach has already left to catch 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. The bouncers fold their arms and shake their heads. Crossing the city centre on their way to different club, another group of boys their age approach them from the opposite direction. When this group see the boy with the pinned back ears embracing his younger brother, they begin shouting homophobic insults, then shout racist insults at his Mauritian friend. Then it all kicks off. The tallest of his friends, a gentle giant, is punched to the ground. A spotty youth with a crew cut 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 ground. 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 their attackers. They are euphoric. A few months before, the boy with the pinned back ears had been severely beaten by another gang of boys from their school. That night, his friend finds a kind of catharsis in violence, and 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 generalist 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 wants. 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, he will be the first, and she decrees, You’re not having a year out to doss about. 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 endless drinking. After 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. 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 in silence, he begins skipping lectures. During the day he buses into the city centre or sleeps off the night before in his room. With his school friends, he joins a larger group of motley, mongrel-looking young men. Most share a corridor with the boy with the jam-jar glasses. 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 absent. When another student night at the Roxy leaves him feeling depressed, he decides to drive back home the next morning. The boys with the jam-jar glasses and the pinned-back ears hitch a lift. Inevitably, they get lost. Possibly he is still a little bit drunk. Just outside Buxton, he is overtaken by a car driven by a former schoolmate, who toots his horn and waves as he passes. Egged on by his friends, he gives chase, but as he approaches a tricky hairpin bend, he realises he is travelling much too fast to slow down in time. When he jams on the brakes, his Fiesta skids and smashes into the crash barrier.

xxxxvi.

Someone must always be excluded. A boy from the West Midlands called Chris is renamed Crisp after helping himself to several packets of another boy’s snacks, a sobriquet which quickly becomes The Cunt when some members of the group turn against him. When 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 gives him another name, one referencing his beak-like nose, and he becomes the boy called pigeon. The boy called pigeon is a bit of an Eeyore, but he also has a prodigious capacity for consuming illicit substances. In the closing months of that first year, most evenings they can be found in the boy called pigeon’s room, smoking weed and playing Lemmings or Doom on his PC, listening to progressive house, giggling over blissed out flights of fancy. Shedding old skins. No one calls the boy called pigeon The Cunt anymore. The boy who called the boy called pigeon The Cunt has now become Jesus Beard.

 

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 must 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. He attends lectures sporadically and pleads for essay extensions, but his marks are consistently good. 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. None of them can decide if its real or not, and they ask a passing paper boy what it is. Looks like a meteor. While dancing excitedly in the middle of the road, he doesn’t notice a squad car draw up until he hears the voice of the female police officer telling him to Get out of the bloody road. When they go back inside, someone starts skinning 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 while 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 the boy with the spiky hair’s twenty-first birthday, they head to a student night at a local club, where his friends hoist him onto their shoulders and ceremonially debag him in front of a girl he has been trying to sleep with. 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 and breaks 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 once more incredibly jealous. Now in the sixth form, his brother is self-assured and funny, with a large circle of friends. After he loses weight following a bout of glandular fever, his brother becomes popular with the opposite sex. By now it is clear that his brother will lose his virginity before he does. This should not be important, but it is. Critically so. He has become 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 seduce her in Freshers’ Week and failed. She is always in the library stacks, so he heads there most days. If she isn’t there, he is disappointed. If she is, he ignores her. It is ludicrous, but his grades improve markedly. Though he thinks about it once or twice, 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 until Christmas time, which seriously curtails his developing 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. The two of them spend 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 bad 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 broken 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 everyone in the country under the age of thirty 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, and never surpassed.

 

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, he and his friends 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 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 must 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 begins working in a bookshop. This is it, he thinks. Life begins.

liii.

A year later, he is back in his hometown, working in a café, when the deputy head with the fearsome temper comes in for lunch, accompanied by friends or colleagues from school. 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 who is studying English, and forgot to book his place in halls. The vicar’s son 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. Local kids throw chips at him. He soon 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. Guided by 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 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 for the rest of his rent, his father pays him off.

 

lv.

A few months after leaving Liverpool, he attempts to move to London. He travels to the capital by train on a sweltering day in July, and takes a tube to Greenwich, where he meets the boy with pinned back ears, now living in London with his girlfriend. They get drunk to celebrate his arrival, and he crashes on their sofa for a couple of days. There follows a week at the boy who explodes parents’ house, sleeping on his bedroom floor. He is supposed to be looking for a job. During the day he takes a train into the city, finds an internet café and applies for jobs, but mostly he walks up and down Charing Cross Road, browsing the bookshops. Sometimes he spends the day loafing in his friend’s back garden. He is in no hurry to find work. He reads Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. JM Coetzee’s Youth. While waiting for a train at his friend’s station, he sees a middle aged man lying face down on the platform. The man’s face resembles a squashed plum. Everyone seems to be ignoring him. After a few more days, conscious of outstaying his welcome, he takes his leave, and spends a week sleeping on a sofa bed in the shared house of the boy with spiked hair, and others from his university, all of whom are working in Canary Wharf. He has no desire to join them. By now, he has abandoned all pretence of looking for a job and has decided to sofa-surf until his money is gone.

 

lvi.

The girlfriend of the boy with the pinned back ears introduces him to her work colleague, a man called Bob Bacon, who is looking for someone to watch his place and water his plants while he is on holiday. He and Bob bond over their affinity for another Bob, Bob Dylan. Invited to dinner at Bob’s later that week, he is introduced to his wife Julie and given pasta, wine and hashish. Bob and his wife are former flower children, proponents of an alternative, transient lifestyle who laid claim to their Hampstead flat after squatting there for years. Bob and Julie’s place is a huge basement apartment at the foot of the heath, with wooden floors and chakra crystals and a dreamcatcher over the large sofa bed in the bay window, his for the next two weeks. Beyond the small galley kitchen there is a large paved garden with rose bushes and jasmine. Just the sort of place he hopes to have one day. Secluded. Subterranean. The first few days pass according to the usual routine. Drinking until the small hours. Reading. Smoking countless roll ups. In a little notebook he attempts to write, though little is forthcoming. He hears John Gray reading from Straw Dogs at Hampstead Waterstones. Buys a book of Jean Arp’s Collected Writings. Tries to find the spot where Nick Drake stood. Discovers Thelonious Monk and Hank Mobley. One afternoon he ventures up through the heath to the swimming ponds, but when he reaches the men’s gate, he hesitates. Instead he walks over to Parliament Hill and stars the city glinting in the sun until his eyes hurt, and he has to look away.

 

lvii.

Through the friend of a friend he is offered an unpaid marketing internship at Dazed and Confused. It takes him a good half an hour to locate the offices of Dazed Media, which are housed in a what appears to be a former factory off Old Street, an unassuming building that feels specifically designed to daze and confuse uncool nobodies such as himself. The reception desk is manned by a dark-haired, kohl-eyed Rimbaud, who is unable to conceal his contempt when he explains the purpose of his visit. Eventually he is buzzed into the main office, a huge open plan space with vaulted ceilings, around which desks have been placed seemingly at random. A female deputy editor shows him around. That is Rankin’s studio, she says, gesturing to the far end of the room, where several white curtains had been strung from the ceiling, and that is Jefferson, she says, indicating a spindly man hunched over in front of an iMac G3. He is seated at a desk next to an androgynous woman with cropped, slicked back black hair. The woman is furious at her boyfriend for being ill. Men are such fucking hypochondriacs, she says, striking a match on a construction brick on her desk, and touching it to the end of her cigarette. Then, jabbing the cigarette in his direction, she whispers to her friend, Who the fuck is that? He stares at his screen and says nothing.

 

lviii.

After a week at Dazed and Confused, he doesn’t go back, and spends the weekend camping with friends in Swanage. It is not a successful trip. The boy of Mauritian heritage and the boy with the pinned back ears are accompanied by their girlfriends, while he and the boy who lies, being single, want to do little more than get drunk. Their friends tell them off for making too much noise at the campsite. When they return, his time being up at Bob’s flat, he boxes up his books and CDs, packs his rucksack and boards a train for Richmond, where the boy who lies has offered to put him up for a couple of nights, in the spare room of his sister’s apartment in Richmond. His sudden arrival appears to take the sister by surprise. In Richmond they do little more than crawl the riverside pubs or buy a bottle of wine to share by the river, then go back to the flat to watch Teachers or 28 Days Later. One Friday evening they head out into the city to meet the boy with the pinned back ears and his work friends, without being aware of the casual Friday dress code. He knows he is nearing the end of his time in the city, and it comes as a relief when the sister asks that they vacate the flat. They cadge a lift north with the other sister of the boy who lies, and he returns to his parent’s home to find it exactly as he left it.

lix.

A friend from university announces she is getting married. With the boy who explodes, the boy with the pinned back ears, the boy who looks like a worm and the boy with spiky hair, he travels to Gloucestershire for the nuptials. They are the odd men out. At the wedding party, surrounded by people from university he can recognises but never spoke to, he drops some speed and circulates through the wedding party like a fly that has been sprayed with Raid. Nursing hangovers 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.

 

lx.

Other friends follow. His Mauritian friend invites him to his wedding in Italy. A gang of them fly out to Umbria for a week before the ceremony. The rest of the week leading up to the ceremony is characterised by water volleyball tournaments, games of poker and drink-fuelled domestics. Only two of his friends have significant others, and he flirts with one of them, safe in the knowledge that it will go nowhere. The groom asks him to write a poem for the ceremony, which he puts it off until the day before the wedding, composing it as he paces back and forth by the swimming pool while the others sunbathe. The next day they gather at a large Umbrian villa overlooking a lake shaped like a silver salver. The heat is stifling, and just as he is about to deliver his poem, the girlfriend of another guest becomes delirious, stumbling away from her chair and smashing her head against the stone garden wall. A week later he is back in the UK for another wedding, at a garden centre near his hometown. In the snake house, he shares a very enjoyable drunken kiss with the flirtatious girlfriend from Italy, but another of his friends catches wind of the kiss and physically stops him from doing it again. Several weeks later, he wakes one morning to find several voicemail messages and angry text messages on his phone. The boy who lies has spilled the beans. It is his voice he hears on the final voicemail, singing, La-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, cunt.

 

lxi.

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.

lxii.

From childhood to adolescence, he has beaten his brother countless times, given him dead arms and dead legs, mocked him for his weight, his asthma, pushed him to the floor and walked away laughing. As an infant, he sat on his brother’s head when he was a baby, and since then he has sat back and watched others push his brother around, and has only intervened once or twice, more concerned for his own safety than that of his sibling. He is ashamed of how he behaved in the past. When his brother starts at university, he worries how he will survive so far from home, the ties of their mother’s apron, but he discovers that his brother, for all his unhappiness as a child, for which he carries much of the blame, is more resilient than he imagined, and not only survives university, but thrives, becomes a popular student, drawing around him a large circle of friends, male and female, which he himself has largely been incapable of, on account of his own depressive neuroses. His brother has never needed to come to him for advice and guidance. At times, he has given the impression of being the elder, more mature, more astute of them. When he and his girlfriend agree to marry, he knows that there is only one person he can ask to be his best man, the one person who has endured despite everything he has thrown at him in the past, the emotional abuse, the physical beatings. The one person who is truly the better man. And when his brother gives his best man’s speech at his wedding, he brings the house down.

lxiii.

How relationships are maintained. Performative masculinity. Piss-takes and drunken japes. Beer lairiness and casual lines. The fraternal code. In London, he smashes beer bottles against a garden wall. In Paris, he pulls a whitey two hours into a house party. 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, they march through the old town chanting Allez les Blues and are pelted with bottles from the balconies above. In Barcelona, he scores baking powder off a bald, bespectacled and very sweaty Catalan. In Benicassim, he helps a crusty with ketamine trailing from his nose pick up the pills he’s dropped. In Amsterdam, he vomits clear liquid over his shoes. In London, he is caught snorting cocaine by a friend’s father. In Chester, a man in a red van brings tiny bags of coke. At Bestival, he vomits into a plastic bag. In Ibiza, he bombs MDMA for breakfast and misses his flight home. All the things that happen. All the things that do not. Performative masculinity. The fraternal code.

lxiv.

An early flight from Inverness to Manchester for a joint fortieth birthday party. Lads only. A luxury apartment has been rented and a table booked at a high-rise restaurant. Modern British dining. Cocktails and sweeping views. In advance of dinner, he and his friends crawl through the Northern Quarter, play crazy golf at the Junkyard. Cocaine is ordered, though no one really wants it, and when it arrives it is heavily cut nose garbage. 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 it’s just the shit coke bumming him out, but when he sees his friends, he recognises that their lives are running different rivers now, out of confluence with the others. While he considers this, at the table two friends 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 by Alex Williamson

Another memory. One summer his mother had left him playing in the back garden with his toys. 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 away from, or keep at bay.

The Dream by Alex Williamson

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.

The Natural Pool by Alex Williamson

Live without sorrow.

It wasn’t that he hated weddings. He liked weddings. He liked the terrible canapes and the awkward small talk. The self-conscious narcissism. The invitations dispensing silver confetti. The godawful photography. The staggering cost. The pressure to make each wedding, each speech, more memorable than the last. The inescapable stag dos and hen dos, and the banter and bad behaviour, which everyone pretended didn’t happen but were as transparent as a lap-dancer’s décolletage. The early morning flights and the grotty hotels and the alpha male behaviour of the usual suspects. The pious intonation of vows and mumbled hymns which grated against the agnostic and amoral behaviour of a few months before. The notion that one’s youth built towards that moment, that selfhood could only be exemplified through this normative institution, and the pitying intrusions upon the emotional lives of those who weren’t by those who were. The taciturn elderly relatives who’d clearly rather be in bed. The annoying, over-tired spinning top children who should be. The brown food. The obligatory covers band. The slew of coming divorces.

And now another friend was getting married, a former work colleague who was settling down to a life of respectability with his French girlfriend. They were to be married just outside of Montjean-sur-Loire, in west Brittany, where the bride spent much of her childhood, and her extended family still resided. The inception of the happy couple’s romance was a classic meet-cute. His friend, upon spotting the woman who was to become his future wife across a crowded restaurant, sent a waiter over with a hastily scribbled note, written in French, asking for her mobile number. They started dating and soon became inseparable, very much in love, a reminder that even at a time 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 brutal heatwave for several weeks. Brutal summer heatwaves in western Europe were becoming the norm. 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. On their final approach to Nantes airport, winds gusting in from the north harassed the descending plane, while on the ground below, trees listed like old men. As the fuselage juddered and the plane pitched and rolled as the pilot tried to level up for the landing, it occurred to him that bringing the children may very well have been a mistake.

They certainly weren’t supposed to be there. When he received his invitation, he had asked his friend’s fiancée, 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 fiancée, possibly too polite to say no, 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, urbane, Europhile grown-ups at that, 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, held in disdain.

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. When he and his wife married, his eldest son had been a few months old a few months old. Good as gold for the registry ceremony in the morning, by the time they gathered at the restaurant with friends and family, his morning nap was long overdue. He could still picture his mother vainly trying to get his son to take a bottle, which he continually refused. In the end his wife had to take their son into a private dining room, where she spent the rest of their lunch breastfeeding him until he fell asleep.

One of his earliest memories was being taken by his parents to the wedding of friends, two bohemian teachers who lived like Tom and Barbara Good. His father had met them when he went to their house to price a job. When he arrived, unannounced, they happened to be sunbathing in the nude. Getting to the wedding that day was fraught. His father had been working that morning, and his mother seemed to take an inordinately long time to get ready. It was also a hot sunny day, traffic was bad, and they had trouble finding a parking space, arriving at the church just in time for the vicar’s closing remarks. At the after party, in the happy couple’s large garden, he and another little girl were happily stamping on some seedlings behind the couple’s greenhouse, when they were spotted by the bride, who told them off. She was still wearing her bridal gown.

His propensity for inappropriate behaviour and poor decision-making seemed to have 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 had only packed a white Oxford shirt and blue chinos. 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. His 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.

Upon arriving, 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 a warm 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. Some might have been upset at the manner of his departure, and he was worried about finding out. He had worked with both the groom and best man, considered them close friends and confidantes while sharing a workspace, but both were better equipped for survival in that world than he was, and both had left to go on to bigger, better things while he remained stuck in a rut in the same organisation.

Then he had written the letter. Moved to Scotland. Gone to ground.

They found the bride and groom to offer them their congratulations, then circulated among the other guests, the best man and his fiancée, a real estate lawyer, whom he had met briefly before, and another former colleague and his partner, whom he hadn’t seen for a couple of years, then another former colleague who was once an intern at his organisation and now a communications director in San Francisco, another former colleague who was also once an intern at his organisation and was now doing something else entirely, 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 or former line manager were not 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, her son was there, whom he didn’t speaking to after he had once accidentally referred to his mother as Thatcher in his presence.

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, was ever so slightly awkward. He felt caught between crowing to them about quitting the rat race, and apologising for sneering at their chosen careers, or making excuses for leaving London to move to another country.

Feeling self-conscious, they explored 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 covered in beech husks. Already displaying the tell-tale signs of boredom, his boys played with these cursorily before losing interest. Several hammocks had been strung between the trees, 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 his children bounced on the trampoline. A tall, lissom French girl ghosted past with a hardback 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, showing 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, marking the enduring fascination of children with water they could easily drown in.

When they returned to the chateau, the wedding ceremony was about to commence. 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. Arm-in-arm with her father, and wearing a white summer dress garlanded with wildflowers, the bride approached from the direction of the chateau. She looked incredibly beautiful. One of the groom’s musician friends tenderly plucked the chords of a familiar song by Neil Young on an acoustic guitar. 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, it might 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 pronouncements, and bride and groom kissed. The groom smiled his goofy smile. Then the guests returned to the chateau for drinks and photographs. His eldest son asked for one of the decorative white balloons which bobbed like marker buoys in the warm breeze. His wife untied one from a chair and handed it to him. Then the youngest asked for one, so another balloon was duly untied. With their balloons trailing behind them, the boys chased each other in circles on the grass, their blonde heads glinting in the sun.

Almost inevitably, his youngest son’s balloon burst when it brushed against a rose bush in the ornamental garden while the guests gathered for a photograph. His son reached down at the pile of liberated confetti, picked up a fistful, then dropped it back onto the floor. A little while later, his eldest son’s balloon slipped from his fingers, wafted off over the beech grove and rose up into the sky, never to be seen again. Once more, another balloon was untied from another chair and presented to him. It floated beside him through 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, the one 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, stood at the lip and lowering his balloon onto the surface. His son had discovered that if his balloon touched one of the water inlets fountains it whirled the balloon around. Inside the balloon, the gold confetti formed an aureate cyclone, a spinning ring of gold.

As a child at school, when he was the same age as his eldest son, he had watched Le Ballon Rouge, or The Red Balloon, the 1956 Oscar-winning film by Albert Lamorisse. Up to that moment, he had almost entirely forgotten about it. Now he remembered watching the film, about a lonely Parisian boy who is befriended by a balloon which appears to be conscious. Their adventures and encounters through the dark, grubby streets of the French capital. The gang of aggressive older boys who try to steal his balloon, deflate it with stones, before stamping on it. The boy’s redemptive ascension at the film’s close, when a cluster of balloons rescues him, lifting him up over the streets of Paris, streets that Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes first observed from the air over two centuries ago.

For a long time in life, he had felt like that little boy, waiting for something to lift him away from his loneliness. He had put his faith first in friendship, and then in literature, neither of which had made him feel any less lonely. When he became a father, he hoped his children would make him happy, and that they in turn would be happier than he had been, that any self-consciousness they experienced wouldn’t become an impediment to joy. Things were happening in the world, to the world, that they could not possibly comprehend. Things that no number of clustered balloons, or assembled Avengers, could prevent. Each successive generation failed its children in some way. Political, social, economic. Ecological. And it was this latest failure, a failure so acute, so indefensible, so catastrophic, that the lack of political will to act on it eclipsed all others. Making his children happy suddenly felt very important. There might not be much time.

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. The DJ warming up. He decided to stay by the pool. In the dimming light, it was hard to measure the depth of the murky waters. His son couldn’t swim, and he was worried he might fall in. He couldn’t risk leaving him on his own. 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 was pleased that 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. His youngest son was running across the grass 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 a moderately inebriated Long Island drawl, I just had to wipe your son’s ass after he took a shit. Then he erupted into laughter. He smiled at his friend and apologised. The best man reached for his phone and took a photograph of him standing at the edge of the pool with the boys, then showed him the photograph. Later his friend sent him the photograph. He is smiling and has his arms around the boys, pulling them to him in a wide embrace, as though his life depended on it, although in truth he was stopping them from fleeing the frame and leaving him stood on his own. He shook his friend’s hand and thanked him again, then returned to the party with his children to find their mother.

Birdwatching by Alex Williamson

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 by Alex Williamson

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 by Alex Williamson

Educate your sons.

i.

Whenever he told colleagues of his plan to leave work to care for his children, a stunned silence fell momentarily over the conversation. Most were surprised by his news, and some of the men openly sceptical. Caring for your children, isn’t that your wife’s job? Now that he was no longer one of them, the company of men, they addressed him differently, more slowly, as if he had suffered a heavy blow to the head or was having a nervous breakdown. He wasn’t sorry to be leaving and suspected few would be sad to see him go, for he had always felt like the odd man out around the office. First the Bartleby-like cynic who distanced himself from their lobbying work. Those who knew him best were aware he had long harboured a desire to disappear from the world, and they acknowledged that leaving might make him happier, however briefly.

Since becoming a father, he had become increasingly incapable of tolerating the friction between his home life and his work life, personal philosophy and the demands of the role, or specifically, the sector he had yoked his career to. His employer’s expectations would never match his responsibilities as a parent, the love he had for his wife and young children always overrode the requirements of his role, and the bullshit characteristics of the 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, on his way out of the door he made a public statement which he hoped would make him feel heroic, but which had the precisely the opposite effect.

In the event, the manner of his departure, maximum self-immolation in the Jerry McGuire mode, left little chance of a return. He had not simply burnt his bridges. He had obliterated them. He had written a letter, but it was no ordinary letter. It was a letter which caused the colour to drain from the face of the charity’s incoming chief executive, It’s a bit of a FUCK actually, a letter which was published in a trade magazine with a circulation list of approximately 60,000 (online audience = c100,000) 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 before the Board, he had fled from like an errant child, switching off his mobile phone and leaving work without saying goodbye to those colleagues who had made his time at the organisation tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, and who almost certainly spoke of him in damning terms once he was gone.

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, a letter so abrasive in tone that it guaranteed that he would never be able to ask either of his former employers for that glowing reference, should he be fortunate enough to find another job in the future. When he delivered the news of its imminent publication to his wife, her face fell momentarily, before she regained her composure and wrinkled her forehead in sympathy, and told him, It’ll be okay, and We’ll survive, 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 were fastidious about running a tight ship financially and taking care of 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, and following her example, creative pursuits always gave way to domestic demands. 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. Fixing taps, cleaning gutters, 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 change nappies and read bedtime stories and prepare feeds, care about his children and tell them that they were loved.

From the very beginning, he threw himself into fatherhood with his customary lack of common sense. On the first night at home with their new son, the boy woke in the early hours in some distress. He rose before his wife could and lifted his son, writhing like a cat in a cloth sack, from the Moses basket and carried him through to the spare room, where he quickly ascertained the problem. A tiny smear of tar-coloured excrement, meconium, had become stuck to his son’s bottom. As he attempted to wipe away the meconium gummed to his tiny scrotum using a wad of cotton wool dipped in cold water, the mewling child screamed and urinated over his sleep suit.

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 and would watch him kicking his legs in the air, making small sighing 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. If he heard his son cry, he would rush to him, stroke his soft, warm head and calm him with soothing tones. After placing his son in his crib to nap, he would first play him Satie’s Gymnopédies, Chopin’s Nocturnes or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on the small stereo in his room, lullabies he hoped would become rooted in his unconscious.

Later that year his wife transferred two months of her maternity leave to him, and the three of them 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 be kind to one another.

 

iii.

Two years later, their second son was born. To their incredibly 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 his back. Every day brought a new configuration of unanticipated calamity. Inexplicable tantrums. Explosive diarrhoea. Nocturnal vomiting. Nothing had prepared them for the onslaught, the sheer relentlessness of the daily routine. The irregular sleep, the near-permanent fatigue, the inescapable odour of excrement, the heightened state of irritability at everyone and everything, particularly one’s spouse. The physical and financial inability to do anything other than feed and clothe and be present in the lives of 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 plenty of time for reading and writing. 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 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.

The flaws in the system were self-evident. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. 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, the settled routine he had envisioned was quickly obliterated by the complexity of getting his eldest son to nursery each day, a ludicrously problematic process. A few months earlier, he and his wife had registered their son at a nursery the next street over from their former home. Rather foolishly, they then moved to a new house a couple of weeks before he was due to start at the nursery. Every afternoon they had to drop their son at the nursery in their old postcode. The nursery was close to the home of their childminder, who had cared for their son since he was a baby and who continued to collect him from nursery while he and his wife were at work. They had worried their son would miss out on a nursery place if they tried to move him to one closer to their new home, which as it happened had been moved to a temporary site which was as far from their house as the other nursery.

 

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 always late setting off, because one child or another had refused to eat his lunch within the half hour he had optimistically set aside for the purpose, or else had soiled themselves 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 stood on the buggy board at the rear. His eldest son who was always reluctant to go. Being three years old, he was still napping in the afternoon, and once or twice he arrived at the nursery to find his son 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 pushing two children through the streets of south London in the first couple of weeks, he transferred his eldest to his micro scooter and pulled him along using a leash wrapped around the its handles. He had pictured the child happily scooting on the level sections of the route, lessening his endeavour when they reached one of the many hills, but instead, despite his cajoling, 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. Sometimes they didn’t.

 

iv.

Many years before, he had caught the end of a TV screening of Mr. Mom, an early John Hughes vehicle for a young Michael Keaton. As he watched the film, 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, suggested otherwise. After being made redundant from his Detroit car plant, engineer Jack Butler, played by Keaton, becomes the primary carer for his young 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 apparently 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 advances of an amorous divorcee. 

As a househusband, Jack finds his masculinity and social standing are drawn into conflict with his status as former breadwinner. Early in the film, Jack and his wife attend a corporate party hosted by Caroline’s boss. Once there he is goaded by his wife’s boss into competing in an obstacle course race, an annual event devised to reaffirm his status. His employees know that they must throw the race. However, Jack, his ego already bruised by the boss’ comments, is determined to win. As he closes in on the finishing line, with victory in sight, Jack realises that crossing the line first could have repercussions for his wife’s career, and their family’s financial security, he throws himself to the ground and allows the boss to win. At the end of the scene, when Jack leaves the frame, he is accompanied by his children, who celebrate their father’s loss as a victory, reinforcing this paradigm shift in the movie. Its alright to be a loser, the movie says, so long as your kids love you for it. By losing, therefore, Jack wins.

If only it were that simple. Later in the movie, Jack takes Caroline something to eat as she works upstairs. By now Jack is sporting a shirt and beard which looked to have been modelled on Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American folklore, and a symbol of the masculine frontier mythos. Caroline immediately takes him to task for letting himself go, a perhaps ironic reversal of the pressure placed on mothers to return to their pre-children figure. 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. By winning, Jack loses.  

In a later dream sequence, possibly Freudian, he imagines Caroline shooting him for reciprocating to his flirtatious neighbour’s advances. Not long after this scene, which we might 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 masculine delusions. Then, Jack’s employers accept they made a terrible mistake and offer him his old job back. And finally, Caroline tires of working in advertising, and returns to her children. Everyone loves a happy ending.

 

v.

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 he and others such as Richard Linklater and Judd Apatow would profitably mine for box office receipts. By the time Hughes died from a sudden heart attack in 1998, he had successful 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 adolescence into the anomie and disappointments of adulthood.

 

As a late Gen Xer, born in 1979, Hughes’ film had merely coloured his own consciousness, rather than overtly remoulded it. He missed most of the classic Hughes movies of the 1980s, being too young for the likes of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller and Weird Science. Later Hughes movies, by contrast, were humorous, if increasingly saccharine, explorations of paternal masculinity and its relation to childhood. The Great Outdoors. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Uncle Buck. Home Alone. When Beethoven, the family movie about a big dopey St Bernard, was released in the mid-1990s, Hughes’ career appeared to be on the wane. After his death, his coronet as the friendly, benign uncle with the uncanny ability of mapping the emotional terrain of young people passed, for a time, to Pixar’s John Lassetter, whose game-changing animated movie Toy Story came out the year after Beethoven, severely compromising 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 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 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. When he showed the film to his friends at university, they rolled their eyes in dismissal, and he turned it off.

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, acting sporadically for the next two decades, while becoming a novel-writing, literature-translating, agony aunt polymath in the process. 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, made himself into a man via bobybuilding. 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, the same year that Hughes died. 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 later seen in movies such as Beetlejuice and The Dream Team, both of which he saw as a teenager. 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. A less successful sequel followed a couple of years later, and after walking out on the second sequel in pre-production, his career never really hit the same heights. 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 back in the press, 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, Birdman, to all intents and purposes, 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 once 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. His failed career. 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 traits in their character (Ed Norton as ultra-talented, arrogant, script-altering buffoon Mike Shiner, who was dumped out of Marvel Studios’ The Incredible Hulk franchise for allegedly being all of those things) added to this metacinematic frisson.

The central narrative thread within the movie is not whether Riggan’s Carver play will go ahead, but whether Riggan has a right to exist under his own terms, away from the Birman identity which has brought him fame but damaged most of his personal relationships, the double bind that haunts him, plagues his every waking moment. The past intruding upon the present.

Riggan

It's important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me... To me... this is - God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.

Sam

Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You're doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it's over. And let's face it, Dad, it's not for the sake of art. It's because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you wilfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.

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, including running through Times Square in his underwear, looking like a turkey with leukaemia. I don’t exist, I don’t exist, he murmurs during one stage performance, lines he repeats just before the bloody denouement, after which he disappears from his hospital room, his face surgically reconstructed, in the movie’s enigmatic, moving conclusion.  

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. The next year he was cast as The Vulture in Marvel Studios latest Spider-Man reboot, Homecoming. Back where he belonged. Above them all. Everyone loves a happy ending.

 

v.

Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) begins 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 had long been familiar with Raymond Carver’s poem ‘Late Fragment’. There was a ambiguity to Carver’s words, 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, more prosaically, 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. Perhaps it was all of them. Perhaps none. That the poem had been chiselled into Carver’s gravestone accentuated the ambiguous close of Birdman.

Now 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. Corso, whose poems he had pored over and pinned to his wall when he first moved to London. 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 told his son as a child 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 school 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.

The young 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, and like his own, 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 within 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, work, 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 Maryann standing in a supermarket placing apples in a paper bag, and later 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 later wrote in her memoir. By that time, Carver was someone else’s problem.

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?

 

vi.

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, this determined push to go mobile, as it meant that ditching the travel pushchair that had become the principle mode of child transportation after they sold the Bugaboo to a young Polish couple. 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. Now consigned to its new home in the loft, he was glad to be rid of it.

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 take hold of his son’s scooter and use it 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 already 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 picking up 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 a carefully prepared clusterfuck, a perfectly-calibrated regime designed to create maximum chaos and anxiety among those collecting children.

Under this symbiotic regime, 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. A simple, effective plan. However, 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 impatient clucking and tutting.

If the gate did not open, a member of the reception staff would have to walk down from the school building and manually open the gate. As the gate was only large enough to allow one person through at a time, it created a significant tailback of twitchy parents. 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, 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 waiting 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 from 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 the youngest had the day to themselves. On Mondays and Wednesdays they went to a playgroup at 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 around 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 pre-schoolers and a particularly laidback approach to minding them. The other parents were mainly mothers. Another south Londoner whose daughter had red curls and a blood-curdling scream. A woman with a dark bob who had adopted two orphaned male twins from India. Her gym bunny friend who had a suspiciously-enduring cold, and her little boy who threw spectacular tantrums. A blonde woman with her mini-me daughter in pigtails and pink onesie.

Very occasionally there would be another father there. Whenever there was, he and the other father would circle each other, 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 on and off for a half hour or so. After that, he would never see the father again. It was better 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 safely 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 what his son was up to.

Wednesdays were the exact reverse of Mondays. On Wednesdays, there being no other playgroups in session that morning, 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.

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. Kath, the ponytailed childminder, told his mother off, and he didn’t see either of them at playgroup again.

On Wednesdays, the playgroup would become 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. Wednesdays always infuriated Kath, and she took great pleasure in turning people away once she deemed the playgroup full, her mouth set in impregnable 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. One morning, the playgroup was already at capacity when two unfamiliar carers appeared at the door with seven pre-schoolers, 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, made a cup of tea 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.

 

viii.

After the birth of his second son, Sean, by his second wife, the artist Yoko Ono, John Lennon withdrew from the music business to become a househusband. From Sean’s birth in 1975, to his re-emergence with the album Double Fantasy in 1980, the former Beatle, one of the most famous men in the world, all but disappeared. 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, his 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, John had been on a booze-soaked, two-year hiatus in his marriage with Yoko, a period the musician 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. After Sean was born, each day John rose at six am care for his son, establishing a safe, stable and caring environment for him. John 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.

Hagiographers like Philip Norman glossed over the last five years of Lennon’s life, but for speculative and unscrupulous biographers the silence invited scurrilous interpretations of his absence. 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 John 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’ Yoko. This was followed, almost a decade later, by Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, a fictional imagining of John’s time at the Dakota which was drafted from his journals, letters and other ephemera, which the dutiful Seaman had pilfered and passed on to Rosen after the musician’s murder. While Seaman and Rosen’s books corroborated some of Goldman’s allegations about John’s Howard Hughes-style existence and Yoko’s ruthless management of her husband’s business, and extramarital, affairs, none could agree which John was the true one. Seaman was sued by Yoko for the theft of John’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 seemed to acknowledge feminism in its pursuit of shared parental responsibility and non-traditional masculine identity. It was 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 John’s last days in the Dakota cocoon undermined these declarations of domestic contentment and marital bliss by suggesting they were a projection, a self-masking by John and Yoko which reaffirmed the former Beatle’s mythic, or saintly, identity while it cemented the couple’s multimillionaire status. This married with the narrative of John as an unrestrained egotist, if not entirely with his being the victim of Yoko’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 confirmed by the global outpouring of grief following his murder.

It is no small irony that John’s becoming a househusband was a complete reversal of his first, failed attempt at fatherhood, and it is feasible that his decision prompted Cynthia’s penning of a score-settling memoir at the tail end of the Seventies. Julian, John’s son by 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, John sang, in God, a self-exorcism and refutation of his musical and philosophical past, I just believe in me / Yoko and me / and that’s reality. Difficult to imagine what Julian felt when he heard those lyrics.

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 affection and understanding while still alive, after his death John left little to his eldest by way of a bequeath. Julian sued the Lennon estate and was awarded a substantial sum, which he subsequently used to buy back items he had given to his late father, but which the estate refused to return 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. When one considers Julian, one thinks of a little boy waiting for his father’s permission to get on with his life. On the 20th anniversary of his father’s murder, an embittered Julian issued a statement on his website accusing Yoko of manipulating his father and frustrating their attempts at building a 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. After being treated to Simon Mayo goofing around with Cathy Dennis’ backing singers, someone in an oversized Bart Simpson bodysuit danced to ‘Do The Bartman’, before a nervous-looking Julian was invited on stage and interviewed by Mayo, standing awkwardly with his acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, after which he pretended 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 / by how we measure our pain, Lennon sang on the eponymous song on his debut album. Julian might well have said the same for 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. While Julian’s music was met with commercial and critical indifference, Sean’s was met with acclaim. 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 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 essential repairs to his new 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 it 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, that was no more him than a piece of desiccated, discarded skin.

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. His victory, and his defeat.

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 with which he was, at all times, at war.

 

x.

It was a bright and clear spring morning on the day he went to see Inside Out with his wife and children. They caught the London Overground service from Sydenham to Surrey Quays, riding the hybrid line with its continuous carriage and orange and brown seats that resembling an abstracted landscape by Anni Albers. The Sunday morning streets of south east London were cool, wet and woozy. He enjoyed the quirks of the line on weekend mornings, though the journey at times felt like returning to the scene of a crime.

His wife and eldest son usually sat together, his eldest absentmindedly sucking his thumb and running a car up and down the patterned seats, while his youngest gawped at the other travellers from his pushchair. He often sat by his youngest son, or if the carriage was more crowded stood by his chair to shield him from the obtrusive tendencies of the metropolitan crowd. He delighted in driving the pushchairs directly towards the assisted seating area, deliberately dislodging anyone who had the temerity to sit there.

That morning it wasn’t busy, and they were able to make the journey together. He watched his children in their nascent individuality. Patted his wife’s knee for reassurance, to check she was still there. Perhaps he was nursing a hangover. A not uncommon condition on the weekends. Three days on, four days off. Not that his drinking was a problem. He was always careful about that. No, his problems lay elsewhere.

At Surrey Quays they disembarked, and he carried his youngest son, still in his pushchair, up the short flight of stairs to street level. His wife followed with their eldest son and his scooter. From there, it was a short walk to the cinema complex on the nearby retail park. Once they arrived, they bought their tickets, ushered their bipedal eldest son into the screen and sat in the front row. It meant for an uncomfortable viewing experience, being bombarded by the hyperreal animated images and the Dolby THX audio system demonstrated at unnecessarily high volume, but it was a routine they slipped into as easily as the wheels on a set of rails. He handed his children the lunch he had made for them before they left home and sat back to watch the film. 

He had suggested going to watch Inside Out to his wife that morning. He wanted to see how Disney Pixar had managed to distil and compress the complex and multifaceted interdisciplinary debates about nascent selfhood and the mechanics of memory - the so-called ‘hard question’ which continued to cause conjecture between contemporary philosophers and neuroscience practitioners - into an animated child’s movie.

Much of the action took place within the psychic realm of an eleven year old girl named Riley, with consciousness styled as a control-booth named Headquarters and staffed by the personification of five competing and complementary basic emotions – joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger – whose interactions and responses to physical and emotional stimuli determined Riley’s self-identity and the forging of interpersonal relationships.

As the film neared the close of its tumultuous second act, Riley’s relocation from the idyllic Minnesotan backwoods with her parents, to a run-down neighbourhood in San Francisco, had been deleterious to her emotional stability. On the first day at her new school, Riley cried in front of her new classmates, creating an unhappy core memory, a glitch in her overriding joyous persona. Joy, Sadness and Riley’s core memories – the foundation of her personality – were accidentally ejected from Headquarters. Her old personality began to disintegrate and a new one established under the erratic management of Fear, Anger and Disgust. Riley hardened against San Francisco and her parents and decided to run away from home.

By the close of the act, the ever-optimistic sprite Joy, the central character and Riley’s principal emotion, and an elephantine biped named Bing-Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from infanthood, had fallen into the girl's memory dump: a deep chasm within her psychic realm where her long term memories disappear. Surrounded by orbs of memory which, having already turned to grey as Riley’s recollection of them faded, crumbled like balls of ash, Joy and Bing-Bong realised they were unable to escape and that, in time, they too would be forgotten. The previously ebullient Joy began to weep, cradling a batch of Riley’s memories which, in her grief, tumbled from her hands like an armful of bowling balls.

As he watched Joy studying an orb of Riley singing and drawing in infancy fragment into nothing, a lump rose in his throat, and he began to weep. He stayed incredibly still, so his wife wouldn’t notice. He had never wept openly in a cinema before. He’d been close on several occasions, but this was the first time he had yielded to sadness, surrendered himself to the emotional manipulations of a story. He knew he was being manipulated, and by a schmaltzy Disney movie fetishising childhood, of all things, yet he accepted it. And when, in the most pernicious instance of mawkish heart-string tugging he’d witnessed for some time, Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong confined himself to the memory dump throwing himself from the rocket she built with him so that Joy could escape, tears streamed down his gullible face.

His children were still very small, too small to understand who or what they were yet, or the words and images being presented to them on the screen, and yet as he wept he recognised he was weeping for them, for the memories that they would be unable to hold onto, their memories of being young and uninhibited; and he was weeping for himself, self-indulgent tears for the memories he had of them that would fade and diminish and disappear, the memories he had of them now and his experiences with them that had already left his consciousness, and would inevitably leave theirs.

As he watched Joy cradling the orbs of memory, he was reminded of the passage in Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Memory’ where the author described caring for his three year old son Daniel.

All the thousands of hours that A. has spent with him during the first three years of his life, all the millions of words he has spoken to him, the books he has read to him, the meals he has made for him, the tears he has wiped for him – all these things will vanish from the boy’s memory forever.

Not long after his first son was born, he was reading Goodnight Moon to him at bedtime, his son as he sat in his lap, bathed and dried and dressed in a babygro. Reading the book, he was distracted by the fact that his son would never again be as young as he was then, and that every day he would be a little older, and a little changed, until he was no longer a baby but a boy, and no longer a boy but a young man, and if he didn’t pay attention it would happen without him noticing.

His son was then a small, helpless being needing constant care, utterly dependent upon him and his wife for affection and protection, but there would soon come a time when they would no longer read Goodnight Moon together, sat in that precise position on the bed, reading and listening in symbiosis. He made a conscious decision to remember this moment. He would never allow himself to forget it. As he read the book to his son he wept, bewildered by this strange confluence of joy and sadness, at his good fortune at becoming a father and his unpreparedness at the responsibility.

After he finished reading, he took his son in his arms and laid him in his bed, wide-eyed and excited, arms and legs flailing under the blanket, tiny bubbles extruding from his mouth. He could not picture the boy the infant would become then, the second son who would follow, the calm moments and the joyful, the fearful and the fraught, the bedtime routines, the tears and the tantrums, the refusals and the discipline.

After his second son was born, he moved with his family to a new house, a small semi with three bedrooms. They put their youngest son’s cot in the small box room next to their bedroom. Their eldest son now had a room of his own. In time, the younger sibling would join him but for now he and his decided to keep them apart. Unlike his older brother, their youngest son slept poorly, frequently waking to be fed. At six months old he also took a long time to settle and had to be patted to sleep at length, a laborious process that was much like massaging a prop-forward after a hard-won rugby match.

After a few nights in his new room, his youngest son developed a cough and cold, and would presage his waking with a series of protracted cries, bringing his mother or father to his bedside to comfort him. One night, after almost a week of broken sleep, he was woken at four in the morning by his son coughing and crying. He went through to calm his son, and in his fatigue and frustration roughly lifted him from his cot, found himself a hair’s breadth from shaking him. As his son wailed out in the dark, he pulled him close and held him tight, lightly patted his back, and felt the boy’s small hand patting his shoulder in response.

There was a sweet, fusty odour in the room, which he put down to his son’s cold, but after he laid his son back in his cot he traced the smell to a part of the wall which was concealed by their packing boxes from the house move. As he pulled them boxes away from the wall, he discovered a web of black mould had formed behind them, mould which his youngest son had been breathing in for weeks, drawing in through his tiny nose and mouth and down into his developing lungs. His sheets were streaked with snot and catarrh. He put his son in bed with his wife and dragged the cot across the small landing into the room where his other son was sleeping. The next day, he removed the mould and bleached the wall.

After watching Inside Out, he was overtaken by a profound and overwhelming sense of sorrow. Much of his life seemed to have been unhappy, or at the very least, at times unhappiness was all he seemed to be capable of feeling. He knew that this wasn’t true, that he had been loved and had loved in return, as he loved his wife and children now, the dearest things to him, but so many incidental moments of happiness, of unadulterated joy, had been lost and forgotten or subsumed by a narrative of unhappiness that he couldn’t control or master, a chronicle of failings that emerged from the vaults of his long-term memory to torment him.

It was Kierkegaard who wrote, in his late work The Sickness Unto Death, with every increase in the degree of consciousness, and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair. This was the narrative of his self as he understood it. He also understood that he was passing on his unhappiness to his children.

He had been a bad father. At times like Joy in Inside Out, clinging on to his children to preserve his own inclination for happiness. At others, too many to mention, like Anger. Hot-headed, severe, quick to rage. Inconsistent, his wife often said. It was a failing within him, something in his nature or a product of his upbringing. Every day he struggled against it. He hoped his children would forget more than they would remember. He hoped they might forgive him, in time.

 

xi.

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 pinecone. Then he looked again. It was a large chestnut-coloured insect with long, antler-like mandibles.

A stag beetle! He had never seen one before, until now. 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, 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, not really 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.  

 

xii.

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.ttweiler were gone.

The Tooth by Alex Williamson

Consult the wise.

i.

His wife was in Scotland for the weekend, leaving him to fend for himself and his two boys. On the Saturday morning, he decided to take them a storytelling session at Kirkdale Books, the local independent bookshop. It was something he had planned to do for a while, but had never managed to for one reason or another, the demands of family life, his general forgetfulness, or more pertinently, his being too hungover, but with no other plans for the weekend and for once being sober of mind and able of body, he decided that today was the day.

That morning he rose, breakfasted, and fed and dressed his children without incident, before quickly showering and dressing himself, all of which took a couple of hours. He didn’t find caring for his children physically difficult, merely time consuming. When it came time to leave, he placed his six-month-old, swaddled in layers of clothes, winter coat and blanket, inside the barely-roadworthy second-hand Bugaboo, a hand-me-down from his wife’s friend. The wheels of the Bugaboo had suffered several rough encounters with kerbstones, and the frame of which was now held together with string after he had forcefully collapsed it on holiday in Carmarthenshire. He had been in a hurry. They couldn’t afford to replace it, so had to make do and mend.

Once outside, he placed his three-year-old on the buggy board, similarly clad in winter coat, tasselled hat and mittens, and pushed his children, like a labourer wheeling a laden barrow, in the direction of Kirkdale Books.

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 half smiled and 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?

Half and half.

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. He lay his hand on his son’s chest and encouraged him to lie down. 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 an operation to have the whole tooth taken out.

 

ii.

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’s body jerked violently in the chair. The boy 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 effect, said the dentist.

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. After tentatively touching his drill against his son’s tooth, the dentist stopped and switched it 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 him unnecessary distress. I think the best thing to do is refer your son for a tooth extraction.

 

iii.

A fortnight later he accompanied his son to his appointment at St Thomas’ hospital. They sat watching 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 winding 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, perhaps. Israeli. Or even Greek. He seemed very interested in his son’s gait.

Could you walk your son to the corridor for me? The anaesthetist asked. They walked the short distance then returned, and the anaesthetist said, 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. It’s 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 sat on the edge of the bed and held his son’s hand. Then he slowly pumped the anaesthetic into the mask, watched the little boy’s eyes begin to dull and close as he drew the gas into his lungs. His short legs thrashed softly against the bed, as if he was trying to get away, but he didn’t try to take the mask off. Then his head slumped, and he went completely still. For a moment, he had the strangest feeling that he had killed him.

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

He returned to the waiting area. The CBeeBees schedule had moved on to ZingZillas, an episode with special guests Dan and Justin Hawkins of The Darkness. He marvelled for a moment at the incongruity, before reasoning that their cartoonish personas and glam-rock riffs fit in perfectly with the hyperactive music show. It must have been an old episode, a repeat, because the elder brother, Justin, hadn’t fixed his teeth yet. Or had a hair transplant. Or morphed into the heavily-inked sibling of Captain Jack Sparrow.

 

He googled Justin Hawkins Darkness on his phone and scrolled through the photographs of the rocker for a little 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 rotted away thanks to his love of chocolate biscuits, and the others pulled when he was eight to make room in his crowded mouth. The only time he was given a general anaesthetic. Dazed and confused, he wept when he woke in the waiting room. 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, gaps which turned from red to brown, and then black. The next morning there were clots of 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 where food got caught 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 on the bed, blinking like a sleepy lemur. 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, took his son’s hand and made for the exit.

The Appraisal by Alex Williamson

 

Restrain the tongue.

i.

Looking back, they were lucky that the birth of their second child was not more traumatic. They had hoped for a home birth, but once the due date came and went, his wife reluctantly booked her induction at Lewisham hospital. Judging by his wife’s distended belly, their second child was going to be a big boy, above average size and long overdue by the time the induction date came around. Too large, in truth, for a natural birth.

His wife was instructed to arrive at the hospital late in the evening. When they arrived together, she was given a bed on a maternity ward which was the very definition of utilitarian, hooked up to a monitor by a nurse and told to wait. Which they did, for some time, sat together in the dim sodium glare of the ward, 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, leaving his wife to the disembodied moans of the Polish girl.

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.

One year earlier he had found a new job at a charitable organisation linked 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. Out of the frying pan.

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 now turned right for 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.

It’s an exciting time for our organisation, she explained. A new team. Lots of positive energy. In the next few months we’re looking to do a major rebrand and relaunch the website. It would be good to see your cv. We have someone in position on a part time basis, but we’re really looking for someone full time. Then she added, I know you’re doing a PhD, but I think we both know that won’t probably 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 under pressure. 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. Anything would be better than his present predicament.

A couple of days after being informally offered the job, the chief executive called him into a meeting, where she informed him that having taken an informal reference from his former employer about his suitability for the role, the job offer had to be temporarily withdrawn pending a formal interview. He left the meeting feeling as if he had been repeatedly kicked in the stomach.

The next day, he was formally interviewed for the role by the chief executive and her deputy. After a series of general questions about his employment history, he was asked, pointedly, if he had ever found himself in disagreement with a senior member of the industry, perhaps an influential individual with a high net worth, a FTSE100 CEO say, and how he might handle the situation, before adding, Obviously I’m aware of the situation with your former President, at which point he knew his old employer had given him a bad reference, and to which he could only respond, I’ve learnt my lesson. It won’t happen again.

The next day he was called into another meeting with the chief executive and offered the job. She wrote a figure down on her notepad and showed it to him. It was a figure considerably less than what he was already earning, but he had anticipated that, given that it was a charitable role. He should have walked away, tried to find another job, but all those years of failed job applications and awful interviews had taught him that this was the best he could hope for under the circumstances. He accepted her offer.

By accepting it, he knew he had deposed the communications manager already in position, a man who was, it later transpired, a family friend of the chief executive, who had been unable to commit to the additional hours because of his commitment to sharing childcare responsibilities with his wife. He wasn’t quite prepared for the upset this had caused among his new colleagues. We’re sorry to see him go, he’s been an absolute diamond, said one. It wouldn’t be the last time he found himself out of favour within the small team.

During his handover period, he and the incumbent met for an awkward lunch at a Japanese-styled cafe on Piccadilly, where he was warned, between slurps of ramen, that managing upwards effectively would be vital for the sake of his sanity. It can’t be that bad, he thought. Another disgruntled former team member, who had confessed her dislike of the chief executive to him, called him Traitor the next time she came into the office. At his leaving drinks, one of his work buddies had said to him, 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. Yes, but she LOVES me, he replied.

He didn’t have to wait long for either theory to be tested. In his first week, at his very first team meeting as the new communication manager, the chief executive announced that would be undertaking an immediate review of their communications strategy. This included a long-overdue rebrand and relaunch of the website. Responsibility for project managing these strands would lie with him, but he could expect regular input and final approval from herself. This was her baby. Moreover, the entire team would be welcome to offer comments and critique throughout the process.

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. Amusingly, he had the measure of the charity’s chief executive, who had already revealed herself to be chaotic, digressive and self-aggrandising. The director was a generally avuncular and occasionally truculent character, with a good nose for sniffing out bullshit. However, he was either uncontactable or generally 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 it was open season when it came to criticising 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 directly beside 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, dismissed or quibbled over. If he ventured an alternative view, it was usually ignored.

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 reprimand, ridicule or a personal complaint.

 

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 had let it be known that she was looking for a new challenge, and had been rewarded with the offer of a new job. She was, understandably, very excited about starting her new role, without giving too much thought 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. Perhaps a few years older, but not much. 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.

 

iv.

On the Friday of his last week, as was customary he was checking a trade publication for mentions of his organisation. It made him, and the pro bono PR firm, look good, even through they might have had nothing to do with it. That week, 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 article 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 in Scottish cities, an endemic problem. One of his colleagues answered the phone and handed it to him without much in the way of a comment. The reporter introduced himself and asked if he was aware of landlords and property management companies putting anti-homeless spikes in the entrances to their buildings. Yes, he replied.

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?

So instead he said, We are aware of it, and have been speaking to our partners who have allegedly installed the spikes. They have assured us that it was an error. They have also offered to make a donation to a homeless charity. Less than half an hour later, he received a call from the PR director of one of the property management companies in question, demanding that he retract the statement.  

It was impossible to give the appropriate comment to something so fundamentally inhumane without speaking the truth. But by speaking the truth, he would losing his job. He should have said, No comment, but he knew that saying, No comment, was effectively an admission of guilt.

The industry was guilty. It was guilty of self-serving hypocrisy and profit chasing, the privatisation of public spaces that meant that the homeless increasingly had nowhere safe to shelter at night. Attacks on homeless people increased every year. And, yes, he was angry about it. He was mad as hell, but he was aware he was part of the problem. The work his organisation did let the industry off the hook. Community social responsibility was nothing more than a PR sham.

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. Cold feet set in. 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 what you said? 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 easy way to do this, at least not without sparking a conflagration. The man had only just begun his new job, and he was just about to encounter 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 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.

Work Experience by Alex Williamson

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 careers adviser was a slim, prim, unremarkable woman with a short brown perm and oval glasses. Slender wrists protruding from the cuffs of her ruffled blouse. He had been called to her office to discuss his forthcoming work experience placement, a compulsory requirement for all the boys in his year. When she asked him where he would like to go, he shifted in his seat and said he wasn’t sure. She asked him what his favourite lessons were. English. English, and history, he replied. When she asked him what he wanted to do for a career, he said simply that he would like to be a writer. Writing is a hobby, she corrected, 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 seldom made any money through writing alone. Unless he was content to be a penniless writer starving in a garret, she laughed, 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, whatever you do, once you have finished your studies, you won’t be able to rest on your laurels. Employers don’t like to see CVs with big gaps in them. It implies laziness. Indolence. 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, she continued. provide him with access to interesting stories and allow a writer’s sensibility to develop. So, would he like to try a week’s work experience at a local paper? He had once caught an episode of Press Gang, ITV’s comedy-drama about a newspaper run by teenagers, boys and girls, and any job that might bring him into closer contact with the opposite sex was sure to solve his social awkwardness, so he agreed.

 

ii.

The very idea of work experience was anathema to him. By the time he was fifteen, he had already amassed plenty of work experience just 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. And all the other jobs his father found for him and his brother to do, to instil in them the hard work ethic that had been somewhat unsympathetically drilled into him at the same age by his own father. Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading. His father would not have been familiar with the words of Saint Benedict, but his grandfather may well have been. Working class roots, middle class aspirations, Methodist leanings. Hard work meant self-sacrifice and self-sufficiency. Motivation. Drive. Success.

For a few of his peers, work experience meant having a paper round or delivering the Buy and Sell on their housing estate. Some might have been called upon to do housework, but even if they did, none of his friends admitted it. Most found it bizarre that he had to. 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 and offered casual labour opportunities for any willing members of the town’s teenage population. A rite of passage for many. After school a troop of green blazers would march, or straggle, down to the stalls to do a couple of hours packing up, at the end of which two or three grubby pound coins would be pressed into their palm. In the summer 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 Transit. 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, before the big Safeway was built and began sucking the life out of it. Being a slight and still-small fourteen-year-old, he struggled with the heavy boxes of fabric, but the trader tolerated his efforts. Up to a point. When he said he was unable to do mornings as well as afternoons, the trader let him go.

 

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 put real money in their pocket. The kind his father favoured. 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. Putting their shoulder to the wheel and bread on the table.

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 already ditched school to start working. 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 or edgelands of the 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 likely to follow in their footsteps.

He resisted that. It would have been easy to follow his father into the building firm his grandfather established. His father had likewise resisted but was compelled by his own mother to take over the business when his grandfather became ill. 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. The path of least resistance.

Generally, he preferred mundane tasks that required little concentration, which allowed his mind to wander, to ponder the many distractions of youth. Sexual thoughts mostly, or songs that butted around his head like flies in a conservatory. Once with his mother he spent a couple of hours at his father’s office, sat on the 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, even though he knew it was a waste of his time.

It wasn’t that he was averse to hard work. If there was a pallet of bricks that needed dressing or a wheelbarrow of sand that needed pushing, his father knew he could be persuaded to do it. Outside of his chores, when he was eleven his parents bought the house that became home for much of his adolescence. While his friends were off riding their bikes or playing football in the park, that year was spent pulling up floorboards and demolishing internal walls, before eating their sandwiches on camping chairs in ghostly rooms rimed with dust. After they moved into the house, he helped his father build a stone wall to line their driveway, selecting the stones and pushing them into position as his father laid the mortar. Sometimes he was happiest up a step ladder with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, working with his mother to strip away old wallpaper. He was always helping his parents. Fortifying their relationship. Laying the foundations of deference.

 

iv.

On the eve of his placement he slept poorly. He drew open the curtains of his bedroom to reveal a clammy Monday in mid-November. Condensation on the windows, frost on the lawn. His mother 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 drove away. At fifteen years of age he was still painfully green, the gauche and inhibited product of delayed puberty and a single sex education. 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 stepping into the newspaper’s offices and doing these things was terrifying.

He rang the doorbell. The door was opened by a smartly-dressed, friendly-looking older woman with a blonde shampoo and set. She invited him in. Once inside he could hear the persistent ringing of a telephone from a room to his right. 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 red golfing elves on it. Possibly he was overdressed, but he had thought it better to wear a tie than look too casual. Through the doorway to another room, he caught the low murmur of a man’s voice. Confidentiality, he thought. Further off, the dim echo of another conversation in full flow. 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. Perhaps it was too early. Or like that song, I don’t like Mondays, by the man who organised Live Aid.

The assistant returned. She ushered him into the editor’s office, a small room with a huge desk in the centre. Around the walls were bookcases where piles of hardbacks and clumps of newspaper appeared to have been hastily shelved. Behind the desk 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. It was now his responsibility, as editor, to carry into the new century.

Just as the editor began to get into his stride, his phone rang. I’m sorry, I’ll have to take this, he said, picking up the receiver and gesturing toward the door.

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

He stepped through a narrow 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. Each desk faced one of the room’s walls, with the news editor’s desk to his immediate right, facing the room. This morning, it didn’t appear that there was 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 as the Back to Work Blues.

Like the editor, the journalists were young adults, in their early twenties, while the news editor, looked to be in his early forties. His skin was pallid and pockmarked, the pores of his creased face blighted by decades of working in cold damp offices under strip lighting. He had the harassed countenance of someone who wanted to be somewhere else, someone for whom time was perhaps running out.

Flashing him a smile, the news editor indicated that he was on the phone by indicating the plastic appurtenance wedged underneath his chin, so he was passed around the room from reporter to reporter for perfunctory introductions. Each had their own beat. Council meetings. Court reports. Planning consultations. Littering and graffiti.

The news editor put down the phone and offered his hand. Hello, I’m Neal. I’m the news editor. He spoke with a soft yet sonorous Welsh accent. 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. He gestured towards a bookshelf loaded with 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 the entirety of that Monday reading old copies of the newspaper, 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 dispirited. Local journalism seemed to be the first step on the road to nowhere. He just wanted to write.

 

v.

The next day, Tuesday, he was dispatched by the news editor to the law courts 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. The law courts were two towns away, and they made the journey in his decrepit, grey Mini Metro. The backseats were covered with the detritus of late adolescence and infancy. Crumbs, cassettes, cuddly toys, used tissues. It took them 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 had hitherto described as cutting back on the fags. Babysitting the work experience kid probably didn’t help matters much. By the time they arrived, the stressed journalist had polished off several 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 a place where an authority figure wasn’t present. Much like at school. They had just made the first session, and after locating the correct courtroom, took their seats at the press table. The journalist was unpacking his notebooks and Dictaphone, when a shadow passed over their table. He looked up at the approaching figure, a man with salt and pepper hair in a side parting, and an air of officiousness. A badge pinned to the lapel of his suit jacket said court clerk.

He’s not allowed in here.

I’m sorry?

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

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

I don’t care if you’re from 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.

Ah. Right

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

I see.

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

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

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. As he had wanted to give the journalist the impression of his being committed and 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 towards a poem, 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 it was equally possible 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 the defendants were lads from the less affluent parts of the county. He wondered what, if anything, they had chosen to do for their work experience placements. Ram-raiding. Joyriding. Purse-snatching. The best some could hope for was an assembly-line job at the Rolls Royce factory on the outskirts of town, 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 hometown. 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 his 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. I wish I had a bottle.

Eventually the court came out of session and the journalist walked through the huge double doors, tucking his papers into his satchel and retrieving his cigarettes.

Sorry about that, he said. I didn’t realise it was youth court today. Neal might have known. I feel bad as it’s 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, he replied. It’s 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 with some kind of certificate in their hands, with two adult Scout Leaders on each side of them.

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 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 of considerable age, older than the Queen Mother even. It was difficult to hear her over the news editor’s angry typing. 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. Be advised, he normally comes back in a foul mood. While the news editor was out, he was able to type up the picture story about the scouts. Labouring over the wording took almost an hour. 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, and finding out that they didn’t, he went to reading past issues of the paper, going 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, like spotting 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 had to stop himself from showing it to the journalists. If he had done work experience with his father, he probably would have spent the entire time in his car, listening to music. That would have been alright.

It was almost dark by the time the news editor returned. Everyone seemed to keep their head down when he came in. As Mark had foretold, he was indeed in a foul mood. Snippy and tyrannical. He crashed down into his chair and immediately began complaining about his day at the courthouse, before directing his ire in the absent editor’s direction. He let him calm down, then went over to show him the short paragraph 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 writing 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. I wouldn’t worry about it too much as we have shorthand, but 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. Give me the photograph.

As he handed him the photograph, the news editor lifted the arm off the receiver and punched the number into the phone. Listening at his 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 found himself blushing with embarrassment. Thanking the lady, the news editor hung up and turned to face him. He began speaking in a raised voice.

Well. What a disaster that was. 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. Well, I think that’ll do for now. I’ve seen enough. You can go back to reading the papers.

The news editor turned to his screen and began working on his court report. He returned to his seat by the bookcase and took another bound volume from the shelf. When he came across another advertisement for his father’s building firm, he stared at it for a long time.

 

 

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 will miss out in the future. He couldn’t not turn up. So he went back chastened and sheepish, but determined that he would leave if any further criticism was directed his way.

As it happened, the news editor was far too busy to care about him. 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 run, and should be on the front page. The editor refused to entertain it. Neither was prepared to give ground, but eventually the editor pulled rank. By way of conciliation, he suggested that the fire story could have a colour front page, next week. As soon as the editor was out of the door, the news editor turned on the vilification.

After lunch, the careers adviser popped the newspaper offices to see how he was getting on. I just popped in to see how you were getting on, she said, fooling nobody. They were sitting 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. News about his bollocking 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. Attention to detail is critical. A good learning experience, if nothing else. Apart from that incident, have you enjoyed your week?

There was little he could offer her by way of a response. He shrugged, and said he was looking forward to going back to school.

On Friday, with the newspaper gone to print, none of the journalists did any work. He sat leafing through decade-old copies of the newspaper. On his lunchbreak he went to WH Smiths and bought copies of Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero and Piers Paul Read’s Alive, about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes. In the afternoon, the news editor loudly led a discussion about the hypothetical genital composition of several prominent people from the local area. He couldn’t work out if the news editor was trying to make him laugh or make him feel uncomfortable. As he left that evening, the news team were discussing going to the pub. Even if he was old enough, he wouldn’t have wanted to go with them. Not for all the tea in China.

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 for a moment it felt like a nice gesture, but then seeing it made him think how bogus it was, how phony, how little pride he had been able to draw from that small achievement. He stared at the image for a few seconds, before closing the pages and tossing the paper 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.

In the Mountains, There You Feel Free by Alex Williamson

image7.jpg

A photograph from Val Thorens. Savoie, France, 1992. An evening meal with his younger brother and an assortment of other children of various ages. Offspring of his parents’ friends. He was twelve, about to turn thirteen. The eldest of the group, but that isn’t saying much. Identifiable by his blonde bowl cut and burnt orange Joe Bloggs jumper. By now a competent skier, technically the best skier on the trip, including the adults in whose company he spent much of the day and to whose conversations he would prefer to be listening. Wearer of a day-glo ski suit. A fluorescent adolescent. Too cool for school. Though not cool enough to sit with the adults at dinner. Which explains the long face. Flanked by his dining companions’ gleeful gurning, amid the cluttered carafes of water and half-drunk bottles of coke, he looks utterly miserable. While others mug for the camera, he brattishly sulks.

Was this where the seeds of his future sorrow were sown? Among the mountains of the Alps? Difficult to say. He remembers the photograph being taken, his reasons for refusing to smile. Yet when he reconsidered the other scattershot memories of that trip, he was persuaded that the dominant feeling wasn’t one of permanent miserablism. That would come later.

No, he remembers certain other things. The seeping cold infiltrating his socks and gloves as he waited one morning for the lifts to open, and almost weeping at the burning sensation. A man and a woman who weren’t married locking themselves into a bathroom so the woman could read the man’s palm, trying to use the toilet and the door being slammed shut. His father’s friend, Paul Stubbs, attempting to land a jump while another skier recorded it from the foot of the slope. Watching from above, he saw Paul descent towards the jump in the schuss position, take off over the ridge and disappear, only to emerge seconds later - spreadeagled, face down, minus skis - below it. He was unharmed but somehow snapped the top off the handle of his ski pole. Watching the video later, he saw the grainy image of a man tumbling through a cloud of exploding ice, returning unscathed to his starting position whenever someone rewound the tape to watch it again.

When they returned to the Three Valleys a year later, they came by the coachload. Thirty couples and families cramped into a double decker coach from south Cheshire, bound for Courchevel. The seats folded into bunks, which meant that the driver could continue through the night while his human cargo slept soundly in their beds. It never entered into anyone’s heads for one second how incredibly dangerous this was, how in the event of a head on collision they would either be propelled to the front of the bus, strewn across the highway or consumed in the resultant inferno.

After driving onto the ferry at Dover, the passengers disembarked and the driver converted the bus interior into the mobile dormitory-cum-deathtrap that would carry them into the Alps. When the ferry docked at Calais, the re-boarded the ferry, and attempted to sleep with the feet of a stranger kicking them in the head.

This time there were two girls his age on that trip. Claire and Lindsey. Two grunge-loving teens, Claire a slight raven-haired goth, Lindsey taller, tomboyish. Both were infinitely more mature than him, they smoked and drank and had nil respect for authority. Strangely, they seemed to be particularly interested in him, the gawky, geeky boy with greasy skin. Neither seemed keen on skiing, but they spent a lot of time together watching television in the basement of the hotel, sipping illicit booze in their rooms. They commandeered the record player in the communal lounge and played Bleach and Nevermind, Appetite for Destruction and Use Your Illusion. He got drunk for the first time on that trip, drinking two small bottles of “33 Export” and skipping giddily in the street with Claire. When he returned home, he determined he would grow his hair out like Kurt Cobain.

One wet Saturday a couple of weeks later, he arranged to meet the girls in Crewe. Not wanting to go on his own, he asked a friend to come along. They met at the bus station round the back of Argos, went to the browsing the CDs and cassettes in Omega Music and generally hung around in the noncommittal way teenagers do.

It was an odd encounter. At some point, over lunch in McDonalds, his friend decided he didn’t like Claire and Lindsey and started being obnoxious towards them. Lindsey, never one to take abuse lying down, started being obnoxious back. While he didn’t agree with his friend’s, he didn’t object either, feeling the girls were being standoffish and rude in return, When the girls boarded the bus back to Claire’s parent’s house, as the bus pulled away he flicked the V-sign at them, and laughed.

Back at home his mother called him to the phone. It’s Lindsey for you.

The Failure

Hello?

Lindsey

Hi, Claire and I just wanted to know why you did that?

The Failure

Did what?

Lindsey

This afternoon. When we were leaving.

The Failure

What did I do?

Lindsey

You know what you did! After we got on the bus.

The Failure

Oh, you mean -

Lindsey

Don’t you like us anymore?

The Failure

Sorry?

Lindsey

Don’t you like us anymore?

The Failure

No! I mean, yes. It was just a joke.

Lindsey

No it wasn’t!

The Failure

It was!

Lindsey

You were being off with us all day.

The Failure

I wasn’t!

Lindsay

You were!

The Failure

I wasn’t being off with you!

Lindsey

Yes you were! All day! Then laughing and giving us the finger when we left. Why would you do something like that?

The Failure

I don’t know. I was just -

Lindsey

Are you going to say sorry?

The Failure

Pardon?

Lindsey

I said are you going to say sorry? We think you should.

The Failure

Yes, of course. Sorry. But I really didn’t…

Lindsey

Okay, bye.

The Failure

…mean it.

What was he? Sorry? Embarrassed? Arrogant? Overwhelmed? He didn’t know.

Fluid allegiances. Fluid friendships.

Aged sixteen he went on another ski trip, this time to Tignes. Yet another different configuration of families. Lindsey was there with hers, but not Claire. Once more they stayed in a large chalet hotel, where the other guests included a group of older, better looking and more confident adolescent males. He resented them right away, and hardly saw Lindsey all week

He shared a room with his brother and a friend, a boy closer in age and interests to his brother. They were put in a twin room with a smaller room containing a single bed off it, and this small room, like a monkish cell, was where he spent much of his free time, the moments buttressed by cold, long days on the mountain and the communal meals where he rarely raised his head to speak. Sitting alone on his bed, reading and listening to some iteration of a textbook indie band. Drowning his sorrows in sound while avoiding other guests, who reconditioned the ambience of the shared lounge with their studied nonchalance and affected elan, chatting up the chalet girls and generally having a good time at his expense, poor tortured soul that he was.

How to be yourself when you are permanently at war with yourself?

They celebrated New Year’s Eve in a restaurant in town. He sat with his parents and watched people of his age convivially dining and then dancing on tables. He sat apart, sipping his Kronenbourg, drinking it all in. Observing. As if it was his duty. As if it was all he could do. At midnight, a girl from the hotel, whom he liked, lunged forward into a clinch with another boy, a boy who had simply moved into her field of vision at the given moment. He felt as if he had been kicked in the groin. Already he longed to be back in his little room at the hotel, the room which had become a sanctum, a refuge, almost a cocoon. That slim white rectangular space, with its ingrain anaglypta wallpaper and narrow bed with rough blanket and starched sheets. His books and his diary, his Walkman and a handful of tapes. Definitely Maybe. Strangeways Here We Come. Everything Must Go.

His panic room. He wanted to hide in there until it was all over.

Loneliness. The memory of it. It returned to him in the off-white colour of that little room. It was the same colour as the snow of a mountain at the close of day, the sharp silhouetted ridges fading in the advancing night. Or a mist rising from the valley, obliterating everything it touched, everything in sight, leaving just the outlines of nearby trees, perhaps the faint lamplights of a single car winding its way up the mountain pass. A world flung into silent stillness.

He was a blight on his youth.

The Handyman by Alex Williamson

i.

He found another job as a handyman, this time at a care home on the other side of town. A few weeks into the job, he was finishing up his daily rounds by replenishing the bird feeders when he spied one pinned to the frame of a ground floor window. It was almost empty, and the seeds that remained looked as if they had been there for some time. Taking a jam jar filled with bird seed, he was about to tip the contents into the mesh feeder when he saw the figure in bed beyond the glass.

It was an elderly lady, lying in bed, pink covers drawn up to her throat. Her eyes were closed, in sleep or death he could not tell, but her mouth was wide open and her skin as grey as the thinning curls of her hair.

He looked away. Never had he seen someone so close to death. He had witnessed the slow demise of two grandparents from cancer, but hadn’t been there in their final moments, and when his mother became seriously ill after her stem cell treatment, he was convinced she was not long for this earth, but he had never gazed upon someone on right on the point of expiration before, where the breath that they were drawing at that moment might be their last.

On the walls around her bed were photographs of her family: husband, children, grandchildren.

He tipped the contents of the jam jar into the feeder and continued his rounds. The next week he received a call from the permanent handyman, the one he had been covering for whenever he was away.

She died yesterday, he said. It wasn’t a surprise, really. She’d been unresponsive for months. Anyway, they want to move someone else into her room, so we’ll need to repaint it. I’m away next week, so that’ll be your job. I don’t think it’ll take more than a couple of days. There’s plenty of paint. Magnolia for the walls, white for the ceiling. Make sure you do the ceiling.

When he came to paint the lady’s room a few days later, there was no trace left of her, save for a small houseplant on the windowsill, and a framed pencil drawing of a house hanging on the wall. The wardrobe, chest of drawers and bathroom had been emptied, the photographs taken down and her possessions boxed up and taken away by her family. The window of the room had been left ajar, letting fresh air in from the garden.

He took the drawing down, and pulled the picture hook out of the wall with a pair of pliers. Taking the curtains from the wooden rail, he laid them on the bare frame of the bed and covered them with newspaper. He shoved the wardrobe and chest of drawers into the centre of the room and spread dustsheets against the skirting boards. Using a roller, he re-painted the walls in magnolia emulsion, and touched up the woodwork with quick-drying white satin. As he was painting, he looked at the bird feeder in the window. It was still there, the seeds untouched.

Once the paint had dried, he put the furniture back as he found it, and re-hung the curtains, ready for the next occupant. Surveying his work, soft light streamed in from the low winter sun. A fine room, he thought to himself, and pulled the door closed.

Later that week he received an email from the University of the Highland and Islands informing him his application for a supply bank English lecturer position had not been successful.

 

ii.

In early November he was back at the care home again, covering for the handyman who was on holiday in Tenerife. On the morning of his return, a thin layer of frost had covered the garden, leaving the lawn dusted with white. The rest of the garden was a riot of brown. Most of the flowers had already died back or wilted in the cold snap earlier that week. Lawns and flowerbeds were choked with dead leaves.  

His first task was to replenish the bird feeders and put out some peanuts for the red squirrels. He liked to take his time with these duties, small early morning obligations like a form of absolution, as the sun warmed the morning air.  There was a slight breeze playing teasingly with the last few leaves of the beeches. In the shallow hollow, below the home, the quicksilver river ran quietly to the firth.

He noticed the squirrel as he was gathering up the blown leaves. A small furry object placed between two parked cars. From a distance, he thought someone had dropped a handkerchief, but as the object came into clearer focus, he could see it was a squirrel, lying on its side with one paw tucked under its head. It was heavily anthropomorphic, almost human, like a sleeping character in a Beatrix Potter illustration. Only it wasn’t sleeping, it was dead, stiff with rigor mortis and the effects of the cold. He wondered if it was the cold that had killed it, or perhaps a cat had caught it, though its body was completely intact, if a little emaciated. There was no trace of blood, but all the colour had drained from its fur, leaving it looking grey. In death, it had switched species. Changed identity.

A little creature clasped permanently in the arms of Morpheus. This was the first time he had seen a red squirrel up close. Now he could see that the red was much smaller than the grey, Physically slighter, its coat less furry, its tail less full.

 

He considered the squirrel for a moment and wondered what to do with it. While grey squirrels were a common sight in the towns and cities of England, red squirrels were protected in Scotland. Still, it was quite rare to see a dead squirrel, grey or red. Taking his mobile phone from his pocket, he googled the Scottish SPCA to see if they had any information about red squirrels, then called the organisation to report it.

A female voice answered.

Hello, he said. I’ve found a dead read squirrel this morning. I know they are a protected species and I wondered if you would need to know about it?

Oh, I’m not sure, she replied.

Is there anyone there I might be able to speak with about it?

Not really. There’s only me here at the moment, and I’m not sure…who would be able to…have you tried looking at our website?

I have. There wasn’t anything on your website regarding dead red squirrels. But they’re a protected species aren’t they?

I’m not sure, I think so.

So there’s no one there who can give me any advice about what to do if I find a dead red squirrel.

No. I’m afraid there’s no one who can help in this instance.

Right.

Sorry about that.

Don’t worry. Okay, bye.

Thank you.

He hung up and looked at the squirrel. It hadn’t moved. He googled report a dead red squirrel and found the website for an organisation called Scottish Squirrels. The Scottish Squirrels website contained a detailed map which recorded every sighting of a red squirrel in Scotland, and a list of funding organisations. There was a contact number for an office in Edinburgh, so he called it and was answered by an out of office voice message. He hung up.

A middle aged man who was visiting his mother came out of the care home and walked to his car.

He nodded at the man. Dead squirrel, he said, pointing at it with his phone. I’m dealing with it.

Oh yes, I saw it earlier, said the man, considering the squirrel. Then he got into his car and drove away.

On the Scottish Squirrels website’s menu, he found an option for reporting a squirrel sighting. He clicked on the button and filled out the form.

Which species of squirrel did you see? He selected an image of a red squirrel in rude health, crouching and alert.

Was the species alive or dead? Dead.

How many squirrels did you see? One.

Date of sighting? He checked his phone and entered the date.

Location of sighting? He opened a new tab, googled the name of the care home, and entered the location.

The website asked him about the squirrel’s habitat, so he selected mixed conifer and broadleaf, which seemed to cover all the bases, even though he couldn’t say for certain where the squirrel had been living before it met its untimely end.

Then he added his contact details and clicked ‘Save Sighting’. He was returned to the homepage and the detailed map with its mass of red dots signifying all the red squirrel sightings that had been logged and recorded on the site. Clicking on the map, he zoomed in to find the care home on the map. A single red dot sat squarely in the centre of the building. Surprisingly, there were two more red dots in the grounds, and he wondered who had recorded those sightings, perhaps the regular handyman, and if they were in fact the same squirrel, or others from the same scurry, or, depressingly, just more dead squirrels.

Taking a garden fork from the workshop, he set about carefully prised the squirrel up from the frozen ground. This was more difficult than expected. The fork was too short, so he had to stoop to scoop the squirrel up. The squirrel itself was partly frozen to the ground and resisted his attempts to lever it up. Even though it was dead, he was fearful of harming it or damaging it in any way.

Eventually he carefully, delicately, lifted the squirrel and carried it to the far end of the garden, where the fence met the wood leading down to the river. Once there he pitched it over the fence, down the slope towards the water’s edge, watching it loop briefly in the air before landing softly in the undergrowth. Then he put the fork back in the workshop and went inside to carry out the weekly fire alarm test.

Too Big To Fail by Alex Williamson

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i.

Thanks to his father, he had a foot on the property ladder. Together they had bought a small flat in south east London, a modest maisonette consisting of the upper floors of a Victorian conversion. He liked it because it resembled a compact house, rather than a flat. A small box to live in, his father said at the time. A small box worth two hundred thousand pounds. At that time, there had been a rush for property across the country, but most feverishly in the capital. A few months earlier, one of his friends from university, who worked for Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank, had bought a flat a short walk away, and another friend, who worked for an American insurance company, had bought in nearby Honor Oak Park. These were small flats, much like his own, but compared to what some people put up with in the city, they were palatial. They had gravitated to south east London because of its affordability, its up-and-coming status, and the area was ripe for regeneration. Back then, gentrification had not become a dirty word.  

When he first viewed the maisonette with the estate agent, the seller, who was also present at the viewing, boasted that he had removed all the original features to create a more appealing minimalist look. The seller, an Australian plasterer, and his wife had found somewhere in the marginally-cheaper neighbouring postcode. A larger place, he imagined, as they were living with the husband’s mother who cared for their one-year-old while sleeping on a camp bed beside the child’s cot in the small second bedroom. He didn’t envy their life, but he did envy the money they had made on the flat, which had doubled in value. Simply by being ahead of the game, of moving to London before he did.

He could not say with any conviction that the flat was something that he had earned, nor that he deserved. It was a product of good fortune, of his father’s hard work. Their transaction was part of a wider trend of young buyers relying on the bank of mum and dad to access inflated property which would otherwise be denied to them. That he wasn’t the only one assuaged some of his guilt. Some buyers received assistance with the deposit but could only cover an interest-only mortgage. That seemed like a dangerous strategy, even to him. He was fortunate that his father had enough capital to buy the flat outright, albeit on the understanding that one day he would have to pay him back. There was little chance he could have saved for a deposit on his limited salary. He could barely make it through the month without going overdrawn.

That left the less-fortunate clinging on to a dream of home ownership, only to see the bar raised just that bit higher each year as property values continued to accelerate. Sometimes you saw them on the high street, noses pressed up against estate agent’s windows, clutching a sheaf of property specifications. The was always an air of anxiety about them, of desperation, as if property ownership guaranteed their freedom, or was their birth-right. Property-owning democracy. An Englishman’s home is his castle.

Around the same time in the US, home-ownership had come to underpin the American dream of self-advancement and social mobility. Across the Atlantic, the subprime market had made that dream a reality by offering 95% mortgages to people who had next to no chance of keeping on top of repayments. People whose work was precarious or earned below minimum wage. People like him, but also those in a far worse financial position than him.

 

 

 

ii.

In the lull between Christmas and New Year he and his wife watched The Big Short, a dramatisation of Michael Lewis’ book depicted the outsiders and oddballs who had brought about the collapse of the US banking system at the close of the Noughties. Drawing upon Lewis’ irony-loaded narrative, director Adam McKay focused upon the morally dubious and inherently corrupt practices at the heart of the US financial system, glossed with a bleak, black humour to underscore the catastrophic nature of the collapse.

McKay’s meta-referential approach recalled the immersive approach of Paul Greengrass and the self-reflexive documentary techniques of Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Adam Curtis. Characters broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience. Notable celebrities were inserted into the action to disrupt the narrative, and explain the banking industry’s absurdly impenetrable neologisms, which seemed to have been specifically designed to confuse and bedazzle those outside the industry. To emphasise the outsider status of those who shorted the US housing market, A-listers such Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt were deglamorised with ill-fitting clothes, unruly haircuts, patchy beards, awkward vocalisations and palpable weight gain.  

While the script’s acerbic humour elicited several moments of vengeful laughter, he watched the film in a state of acute agitation. His sympathies were being pushed and pulled in different directions. What should have been a powerful indictment of destructive hubris and corporate greed was instead a subtle humanising of the principals behind the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The narrative actively encouraged the viewer to side with those who shorted the system, who deliberately brought it down in order to make money. As the film progressed, he found himself gritting his teeth and clenching his fists.

Maybe it was because the cast was made up almost entirely of men. White men. Wealthy and entitled white men, male actors with an estimated combined net worth of over $200m, who were now lecturing the audience on the bad behaviour of wealthy white men. The masculine tenor of the entire enterprise gave the impression, were that impression not already well ingrained, that not only are all wealthy white men responsible for all the world’s ills, but that only wealthy white men are able to provide the much-needed emetic to a corrupt system. They did this chiefly by driving it to the point of collapse, a contradiction which the film happily ignored until its closing moments. At which point, it appeared to rediscover its moral compass.

McKay’s script also took liberties with back-shadowing. As two young traders celebrate profiting from the oncoming collapse of the subprime housing market, their mentor, a former trader played by Brad Pitt, rounds on them. When unemployment in the US goes up one percent, 40,000 people die, he tells them. If we’re right, people lose homes, people lose jobs, people lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. Pitt’s speech condensed the entire film’s moral premise, its righteous anger, its urgency. And its market appeal.

Listen to this, the film seemed to be saying. This is a catastrophe. But it’s also funny. It’s a tragicomedy. Like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Like Beckett or Pinter. Like Shakespeare. These people are assholes. Greed will be their downfall. Their fatal flaw. And they made a lot of money when the corrupt practices of other assholes brought capitalism to the point of collapse. Fortunately, capitalism survived. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be watching this right now. You’d be selling your kids for food.

Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, had produced the film. At the 2015 Oscars it picked up best original screenplay, an acknowledgement by Tinseltown of its value as a Very Important Movie. Made for $50m, it grossed just over $130m, netting a handsome profit of $80m. Making movies is big business. Not as big as investment banking, but still pretty fucking big. Too big to fail, anyway.

 

iii.

Everyone knows the story. How there had been rumblings for some time about soaring property prices and unsustainable levels of personal debt. These were nothing new. It was party time on Wall Street and there was always some jackass out to spoil everyone else’s fun. All that mattered was that the people in charge, the architects of the system, the wealthy white men like Alan Greenspan and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, believed that the system was strong. And, in turn, the politicians and the media and the people, believed them. Until it was too late.

For two decades, anyone with a scrap of capital had been investing it in property. By contrast, individuals and institutions with serious amounts of capital invested in derivatives. Those without capital were encouraged to borrow. When property prices soared, more credit was made available to those on low incomes. The difference now was that loans that were not going to be repaid were propping up the system. Eye-watering levels of personal, institutional and national debt became acceptable within a booming economy. So long as the economy continued to boom and borrowers could meet their monthly repayments, there was nothing to worry about.

It was less of question of if, but when.

No one saw the crash coming because they were too busy making money. Few realised how important, how pervasive and how potentially destructive unregulated financialisation had become within the global economy. No one outside of the banks had even heard of mortgage-backed financial securities and collateralized debt obligations. The sub-prime mortgage crisis didn’t exist yet because few expected the US housing bubble to burst. Aside from a few voices of caution, barely anyone knew that there even was a bubble. A phenomenon which crippled the US economy, stymied the flow of capital within the global banking system and triggered a deep worldwide recession, was impossible to imagine. Before the end of the decade, it was all anyone could talk about.

 

iv.

The contagion spread quickly. Each month brought more bad news from the financial markets. Every week, there was another failed institution in the US or Europe. Every day, crashing share prices, bankruptcies and talk of bailouts. First, Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America, who later bought Merrill Lynch. Bear Stearns was bought by JP Morgan Chase. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bailed out for $200bn. Across the US, scores of smaller banks failed when mortgage defaults shot up. And this was just the beginning, the blown scrap of paper which presages a hurricane.

In August 2007, the British bank Northern Rock, heavily reliant on borrowing from the international money markets to fund its lending, was unable to repay its loans when the market for securitised mortgages evaporated. Spooked by scaremongering reports in the news, across the country depositors began arriving at their local branch of Northern Rock to withdraw their savings, causing the first run on a British bank for almost two centuries. The bank was bailed out by the Government with taxpayers’ money. It wouldn’t be the last.

By late 2008 it was the turn of American International Group (AIG), the insurance broker, and Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest American bank. Both had been caught out by their over-exposure to the market for credit default swaps, a market established by Christian Bale’s character, Dr Michael Burry, in The Big Short. The US Treasury bailed out AIG for $180bn. With its ties to millions of Americans pensions and insurance policies, in addition to its interests in the Eurozone, AIG was famously deemed by Hank Paulson to be too big to fail. That phrase, too big to fail, first used by a US Congressman Stewart McKinney in a 1984 Congressional hearing, and later described by Ben Bernanke as referring to a situation where the consequences for the broader economy of allowing a disorderly failure greatly outweigh the costs of avoiding failure, would continue to crop up in the days that followed.

Lehman was an exemplary institution in the too big to fail mould. The bank was bust, and Paulson and his team decided an example had to be made. When the British government blocked the sale of Lehman Brothers to Barclays, the US Treasury - run by former Goldman execs - forced Lehman’s CEO Dick Fuld to announce its bankruptcy. Lehman had a large office in London for its global investment and equities teams. Under UK law, once the firm went bankrupt its employees had to vacate the offices with immediate effect. On the morning that Lehman went bankrupt, thousands of employees streamed from its offices in Canary Wharf, carrying the contents of their desk in cardboard boxes while the world’s press milled around them, asking them questions, probing for insights, querying where it all went wrong. Some paused to give a quote. Most scuttled into the underground like worker ants hurrying into their nest. His friend from university, who had diligent attended the milk round events in their final year, who worked at Lehman for ten years, all the way up to Vice President, who had bought his flat in south-east London and married a year later, lost his job.

His friend was lucky. When Nomura took over Lehman’s investment banking and equities business, they retained him to help oversee the transition. Others weren’t so fortunate. A few months later, the Royal Bank of Scotland, an institution whose expansion under the ruthless stewardship of Sir Fred Goodwin had briefly become the largest bank in the world, was bankrupt. Sir Fred’s nickname as chief executive had been Fred the Shred due to his ruthlessness in cutting waste (i.e. people), but ironically it was his surname which was most apt, a portmanteau which more concretely personified the ethos of global finance. Good win. When the financial crisis hit in 2007, RBS was already severely in debt after its aggressive and needless takeover of Dutch bank ABN Amro. RBS, along with Lloyds TSB and Bank of Scotland, were propped up with a capital investment of £37bn in taxpayers’ money by the UK Government. 

At the Conservative Party conference of 2009, the last before the next year’s general election, the shadow chancellor George Osborne announced a manifesto pledge of public sector spending cuts totalling £7bn. This was the first part of a longer-term plan to cut £175bn of public debt, the majority of which had been spent on propping up a financial system on the point of collapse, a system which had been deregulated under the previous Conservative Government, a system whose major banks and their executives had argued for that deregulation, a system which had been allowed to grow too large and which was now, after a string of mergers and buy-outs, even bigger. And somehow, it was everyone else’s fault.

We’re all in it together.

 

 

v.

After the US housing market collapsed thousands of Americans lost their savings, pensions, retirement funds and their homes. Many thousands swelled the huge numbers of homeless living in tent encampments across the country. In The Big Short, an image of the tents flashes up for less than a second. After that it was back to the egregious wealthy white men. Because that is always the nature of the narrative. As a species, it seems we can only begin to deal with the consequences once we are certain of the causes.

In the wake of the financial crisis, several tell-all exposes of the financial crisis penned by former bankers were rushed into publication. Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile (Geraint Anderson, 2008). How I Caused the Credit Crunch (Tetsuya Ishikawa, 2009). Gross Misconduct: My Year of Excess in the City (Venetia Thompson, 2010). Confessions of a City Girl: The Devil’s Pinstripes (Suzana S, 2010). At the same time, a number of more cerebral first person accounts were also published. The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do About It (Robert J. Shiller, 2008). Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System from Crisis — and Themselves (Andrew Ross Sorkin, 2009). Fools Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe (Gillian Tett, 2009). On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System (Henry M. Paulson Jr., 2010). The End of Wall Street (Roger Lowenstein, 2010). All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, 2010). 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown (Simon Johnson and James Kwak, 2010). The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America--and Spawned a Global Crisis (Michael W. Hudson, 2010). Crash of the Titans: Greed, Hubris, the Fall of Merrill Lynch, and the Near-Collapse of Bank of America (Greg Farrell, 2010). Slapped by the Invisible Hand: The Panic of 2007 (Gary B. Gorton, 2010). Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, 2011). The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Michael Lewis, 2015).

Of these, The Big Short and Too Big to Fail both made the highly profitable leap into celluloid. Inside Job, a documentary about the financial crisis narrated by Matt Damon, which drew on a number of these books, was released in 2010. That year it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Greed is always more interesting than hunger. Greed is compelling in a way that hunger is not. Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed sells.

We can only deal with the consequences once we are certain of the causes.

 

vi.

In 2010, after almost three years of economic crisis, the UK went to the polls. The Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown surrendered the election one grey afternoon in Rotherham, when a microphone recorded him calling a lifelong Labour supporter, Gillian Duffy, a sort of bigoted woman. When the BBC screened footage of Brown listening to a playback of the exchange, it was possible to pinpoint the precise moment Labour lost the election.

 

Throughout the campaign, David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, barely put a foot wrong, but it was Nick Clegg, star of the televised debates, who presented himself as a Prime Minister in waiting. Everyone seemed to agree with Nick.

Which was why, on the morning of the 2010 general election, he voted for his constituency’s Liberal Democrat candidate, even though he knew full well that they wouldn’t win. He spent the evening of the election at a private event at Tate Britain, tagging along with his chief executive and a public affairs manager colleague, supposedly networking but instead circling the fringes of the crowd, drinking the free beer and sneaking off to the gents for a line or two, until he grew bored and paranoid and headed home.

The next morning, he along with the rest of the country woke to a collective hangover and a hung parliament. Labour support had collapsed a number of constituencies, and the Conservative Party had secured the most votes and the most seats, if not enough to form a government. As leader of the third largest party, even though his party had lost seats at the election, Nick Clegg became kingmaker.

It took a week for coalition talks between the Lib Dems and the Tories to conclude. At the end of that week, Cameron and Clegg appeared in the Downing Street rose garden together, as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Politics as bromance. Cooperation as coercion. Coalition as culpability.

Welcome to the Age of Austerity. Nothing to see here. Keep calm and carry on.

 

vii.

Retail Fail.

We are told that things change. Times change. People change.

Change is the only constant. 

Change is good. Change works. Change is right.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Markets don’t want change. They want certainty. They thrive on confidence. Without confidence, the centre cannot hold. Things fall apart.

In the current economic climate.

In straightened times, when people begin to feel the pinch, they shift priorities. Shop around. Seek out the cheapest deal. Buy online.

Our financial institutions are strong.

Property values remain high. Rents remain high. Business rates remain high. Consumer behaviour changes. Retail strategies change.

Buy now, pay later.

High streets empty. Retail parks grow. Traditional retailers fall into administration. Small businesses close. People lose their jobs. People lose their homes.

Sale. Sale. Sale. Sale Now On. Up to 60% off everything.

Consumer behaviour changes. Retail strategies change. Retail parks empty. Picking warehouses expand.

The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts.

Property values remain high. Rents remain high. Business rates remain high.

Britain can only spend what it can afford.

Consumer behaviour changes. Retail strategies change. Companies issue profit warnings. Reduce their exposure to market volatility.

We used to think you could spend your way out of recession.

Consolidating, retrenching, rolling back. Cutting waste. Closing stores. Expanding automation. Slashing jobs.

We are the party for hardworking people.

Ethel Austin, Phones4U, Virgin Megastore, Allied Carpets, USC, Dolcis, Borders, Birthdays, Threshers, Blacks, Habitat, Homebase, Principles, Athena, Tie Rack, Mexx, Diamonds and Pearls, Land of Leather, The Officers Club, Jane Norman, Focus DIY, Comet, Whittards of Chelsea, Maplin, MFI, Kwik Save, Music Zone, JJB Sports, Toys R Us, Poundworld, Staples, Banana Republic, Evans Cycles, Austin Reed, British Home Stores, Woolworths, HMV, Debenhams, LK Bennett, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, House of Fraser, New Look, WH Smith, Waterstones, The Works, Waitrose, Jessops, John Lewis, Morrisons, Currys, PC World, Miss Selfridge, Thomas Cook, Next.

Store closing. Everything must go.

Times change. People change. Change is the only constant.

 

 

viii.

The end result. Trillions of dollars were pumped into the global financial system to prop it up. Disgraced bankers walked away with watertight pensions and billions in bonuses. After the crisis had subsided, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland closed hundreds of branches, shedding thousands of jobs. In 2016, RBS was accused of crushing small businesses by pulling loans and hiking interest rates on their properties and making profits from the resultant fire sales. Barclays Bank was accused of rate-fixing and tax evasion. Even his beloved Co-operative Bank, with its supposedly ethical investment strategy, struggled under the weight of its debts, and its Chairman was forced to resign after caught being buying crack cocaine as part of a newspaper sting.

Plan B’s green-lighted a seven-part series based on Colson Whitehead’s slavery novel, The Underground Railroad, developed in partnership with Amazon Films. In the US and the UK, Amazon had been criticised for its low tax contributions and poor employment conditions, including low pay, use of zero hours contracts and insufficient toilet breaks for staff at their fulfilment centres. In 2018, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, headed the Forbes Rich List with a net worth of $140bn.

A decade after the financial crisis, an IMF Global Stability Report warned that public and private debt had risen 60% to the record level of $182tn.

Times change. People change. Change is the only - you know the rest.

 

 

 

ix.

He often wondered how his life would have been had he not met his wife, had he not fallen in love with someone whose attitude to affluence matched his own, whose aspirations corresponded with his acceptance of the limitation of possibility. What if he had met someone who worked in the financial sector, if they had overreached themselves to buy a home, front-loaded their mortgage and lost their jobs, lost everything when the economy went into recession. What if he had followed his friends into a corporate graduate scheme, started at the bottom and worked his way up, find himself discussing the gaps in his CV with a recruitment consultant by the autumn of 2008.

Before they married, his girlfriend had decided that she wanted to become a librarian. A safe, salaried, middle class job. She enrolled on a part-time Masters in Library and Information Studies at City University. At the same time, she began a new job at Kings College London’s medical library, writing several essays for her Masters in the evenings or during slow Sundays at work. She was awarded a Distinction. Her Masters thesis, which consisted of original research into emerging artists and their use of information systems, was published in an academic journal. She left her job at Kings and found another job as a library assistant at a small museum in south London. During this time, she became pregnant.

When the coalition’s first round of spending cuts was announced, the museum where she worked faced a significant shortfall in funding. One of the museum’s plans early to make up this shortfall was to close the library and dispose of its collection. After being told the news by her director, his distraught wife called him at work. Worried about the effect it would have on her pregnancy, he offered to come home. She seemed to compose herself. No, she said, I’m fine, and hung up.

At first, he thought he had done something wrong, had said the wrong thing or not said enough to comfort her, but when he returned home, he found his wife had already begun formulating a plan to keep the library open. I’m not going to let them do it, she said. He had never seen her so determined about anything.

Over the coming years she reduced her hours and made savings to ensure the library would remain an integral part of the museum. She reviewed all the rare books in the library, some of which had been ignored for decades. Hidden among the library’s huge collection of books was an original book of cyanotypes by the Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, the first known publication to carry photographic illustrations, and one of only a handful in existence. Had the library closed and the museum disposed of its collection, it might have been lost.

For two days a week, on less than half her original salary, his wife got to keep her job. The library remained open as a research centre, and a place for the public to visit. As thanks for her endeavours, the museum began using the library as an informal meeting room, as a storage space for defunct or unwanted equipment from elsewhere in the museum, and from time to time as over-spill office space during renovation work. Her discovery of a rare book of Anna Atkins cyanotypes was ignored. A few years later the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam staged a major exhibition on Atkins work, giving pride of place to its own copy of the cyanotypes.

Across the UK, other libraries became easy targets for hard decisions about local council expenditure. In less than a decade, almost 500 libraries closed. Those that remained open were volunteer run. Around 8,000 librarians lost their job. As public libraries disappeared, the job market went with them. His wife was fortunate. One of the lucky ones. She kept her job. Thousands didn’t.

 

Welcome to the Age of Austerity. There is nothing to see here. Keep calm and carry on.

 

x.

When people have no money, when they cannot find work or borrow any more, when their benefits are frozen, when they lose their health, they cease to be economically useful. When people have no money, when they default on their mortgage, when they lose their home. When they have nothing left. When they can no longer consume. They cease to be politically useful.

In The Big Short, when the US financial system was bailed out by the Federal government, Mark Baum, the pugnacious fund manager played by Steve Carrell, observed: I have a feeling, in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.

In the early days of the new year, he watched another film, I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s docudrama set in a contemporary north-east of England. Daniel Blake is a middle-aged Geordie joiner approaching retirement who is forced to stop working after suffering a heart-attack on site. Despite being passed as unfit for work by a cardiologist, he fails the Department for Work and Pensions’ work capability assessment, which stops his employment and support allowance (ESA). He appeals against the decision and begins claiming jobseekers’ allowance, whose arcane requirements and continual threats of sanction are a source of continual stress.

Blake befriends a single mother at the Jobcentre, helping her make improvements to her council flat and accompanying her to a food bank. After being caught shoplifting, she turns to prostitution to feed her family. When Blake spray-paints a protest slogan on the wall of the job centre, he is arrested and cautioned by police. In the closing scenes, while waiting in court for his appeal to be heard, he suffers a heart attack in the toilets, and dies.

He watched the film in a state of acute discomfort. The script by Paul Lavery was heavy on exposition, making the dialogue seem laboured and sometimes unconvincing. Loach’s trademark cinema verité style, relying on unknown actors, seemed old hat, and the performances lacked the effortless insouciance of Loach’s best work. To him, it seemed to miss its mark. However, when screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, I, Daniel Blake was awarded the Palme D’Or. It also won the BAFTA for Best British Film, in addition to several smaller prizes across Europe and the US. Part-funded by the British Film Institute and BBC Films, I, Daniel Blake took $15.8m in box office receipts. Although it may have missed its mark, it obviously still hit a nerve.

In the UK, the film was criticised by some for being too political, too left-wing, too fictional. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary and architect of the system to which Blake is subjected, called it ‘unfair’. The DWP denied any causal link between work capability assessments and instances of benefits claimants dying unexpectedly or taking their own life. In 2018, Philip Alston, a special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, described the age of austerity as ‘a social calamity and an economic disaster’. Since 2010, the rapporteur observed economic policies of the coalition and Conservative governments had left 14m people, one fifth of the population, living in poverty. Of these, ten per cent were classed as destitute. No longer economically or politically valuable.

Watching I, Daniel Blake, he intended to bask in Loach’s rage, but found it didn’t make him furious enough. It made him angry, but he still wanted it darker. Instead he looked at the photography of Jim Mortram. For over a decade Mortram had been photographing the community in his Norfolk town, those who were at the sharp end of cuts to welfare and social services in the age of austerity. The isolated and infirm. The homeless and bereaved. The ignored and forgotten. Those without economic or political value. The title Mortram had given to his project was Small Town Inertia. The photographs reminded him a little of Paul Graham and Richard Billingham, with some Don McCullin and Nan Goldin thrown in for good measure, but with a distinctive social realist vernacular of its own. It was raw, polemical, humanitarian.

He knew of Mortram’s work from following him on social media, but he didn’t really know the man, hadn’t met him, shook his hand and held his gaze, but he felt that he recognised the Loachian quality to his work. Mortram was angry. He could see that. The photographs bespoke his rage. They insisted on being seen, on upsetting sensibilities, resisting interpretation. They were pure and true, returning dignity to those who had seen their dignity seep away over countless years, where each day passed the same as the last, where nobody came, and nobody noticed, and nobody cared. The sanctions and sectionings, the squats and temporary accommodation, the estranged families and lost children. The unpalatable facts of life that Loach’s I, Daniel Blake shied away from confronting. Though in fairness Loach had paid his dues.

In February 2019, a Jeff Hayward, from Clithero, Lancashire, won a fit-for-work appeal seven months after his death. Hayward had spent the last eighteen months of his life fighting against the health assessor’s decision to refuse him ESA, and he died just two weeks before his appeal tribunal. In the same week, the Work and Pensions secretary, Amber Rudd MP, admitted that the roll-out of universal credit, the new benefits payment introduced by the coalition government in 2010, had caused a rise in the use of foodbanks across the UK. Up 52%, according to the Trussell Trust.

Life imitating art imitating life.

A picture tells a thousand stories. Small town inertia. We’re all in it together. Keep calm and carry on.

 

xi.

That summer, quite unexpectedly, he received a wedding invitation in the post. One of his university friends, the boy who explodes, the last confirmed bachelor of their group, was finally getting married. Since they parted ways in London, his friend had continued working as a trader. By his friend’s own admission, the stress of his job had taken its toll on his personal relationships. His friend’s frustrations were not uncommon. He knew that had he entered the financial sector, his response to the job would have been much the same. Over time, his friend had felt compelled to leave his job, and returned to university to start a Masters. A few months after his friend had left his job, they for lunch at a restaurant near his home. Over steak and a mid-range Pinotage his friend told him what had happened. He seemed like a man reborn, rejuvenated and excited about the future. His friend’s old gleeful self, the self he had first encountered at university, had returned. He mentioned that he had started seeing someone, and that things were going well.

 

By coincidence, the weekend the happy couple had chosen for their wedding was the same weekend as his own wedding anniversary. He and his wife had been planning an anniversary trip to Amsterdam for the autumn, but being financially unable to do both, they decided to put their city break on hold. The wedding venue was a converted coach house just outside Whitney, an affluent market town in Oxfordshire in the heart of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency. He and his wife booked a room at the aptly-named The Blue Boar, an upmarket pub with rooms in the town centre. If this was to be their anniversary trip, they decided, they might as well treat themselves.

On the afternoon of the flight, the first winter storm of the season swept in from the Atlantic. Approaching Bristol airport, their plane was pitched violently from side to side as it made its landing approach, the landing gear hitting the runway tarmac hard. The entire fuselage seemed to bend on impact. They disembarked in driving rain, and hastened to the car hire facility, grateful to still be in one piece. After driving through the back lanes of Avon, they eventually arrived in Whitney, left their car in a supermarket car park and rushed to their hotel for dinner. No sooner had they sat down to their anniversary meal, than the groom and his retinue of best men and ushers swept into the bar, some of whom he had not seen for almost a decade. After an awkward round of introductions, he and his wife continued their dinner at a separate table.

On the day of the wedding, he and his wife shared a taxi to the venue with the boy who resembled a worm and the boy with the jam jar glasses, and their significant others. They were among the first to arrive. The coach house was almost empty, save for the ushers and a couple of other guests, including the boy with the spiky hair, there without his wife who was due to go into labour at any point. This would be their third child. Inevitably, the conversation fell to discussing children and schools, while the ushers milled around, waiting for the groom to arrive. The ushers he knew from his time in London, but several he hadn’t spoken to in years. For a time, they had all socialised together. After falling out with the groom, he had lost contact with many of them. Most worked in the finance sector, as traders, underwriters, IT consultants. As financial collapse gave way to a global credit crunch, some had lost their jobs at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan, companies they had worked for since signing up to a graduate scheme at the milk round. Some took lower prestige roles at small-scale start-ups or consultancies, while others switched institution. A number had cashed in on their London homes and left the capital. All appeared to have survived the recession with their careers and marriages intact.

More guest arrived and the venue became more crowded. The groom arrived with the best man and his parents. Shortly afterwards, one of the ushers invited the guests to take their seats, in a playful comedy cockney accent. The guests rounded the corner into another hall, an old stable where a string quartet was playing something by Vivaldi. He and his wife selected seats near the back of the room. The groom entered with the best man and took up his position at the front. Then they waited. And waited. Eventually, a flower girl walked up the aisle. Next the bridesmaids arrived, one by one. Finally the bride appeared, arm-in-arm with her father.

The ceremony itself was surprisingly short, with a cursory exchange of vows and a smattering of short readings. The groom’s father read a poem about a mountain that he had written in Welsh, and there were a couple of very short poems by friends of the bride. Poetry at weddings always brought a wry smile to his face. Once the register had been signed, everyone was invited outside for the group photographs, which took longer than the ceremony. In the press of people offering their congratulations to the bride and groom, he missed his chance to do the same.

Once they were seated for dinner, tucked in a corner with friends of the groom’s parents, he looked around the room at the faces of those he once knew. The post-university crowd. Everyone looked older. It was to be expected, but it still surprised him, the changes in complexion. The men were looser round the middle, some with bald spots and greying beards. Age had lent greater elegance to the women, wedded to a faint weariness from balancing motherhood and career. There was a closeness and an equanimity within their social group that he envied, for he had never been wholly one of their number, but always stood slightly at one remove from it. All the couples had endured save for one, and the wronged half of that failed marriage, with new boyfriend in tow, was well on her way to throwing up in her taxi back to the hotel.

This, he thought, was what Hank Paulson had meant by too big to fail. The laughter-lined faces, the clinking glasses, the tipsy and relieved mother of the groom, the proud and austere father of the bride, the confetti snagged like technicolour dandruff in the hair of the kissing couple, the three course meal and string quartet and the luxury stationary. When friends and others he knew had lost their jobs during the financial crisis, he had said nothing. Secretly, he was glad. At the time he wanted to see the banks come crashing down, like a flaming Zeppelin, all their arrogance and hubris punctured and burning.

As he listening to the speech by the best man, whose affectionate, gentle ribbing of the groom highlighted his many and varied foibles, foibles they had all experienced first-hand at some point or another, he began to feel sorry for himself. Perhaps it was the copious amounts of alcohol he had drunk by that point in proceedings, or simply fatigue, or the emotional undercurrents of the occasion, but sat at that table at one remove from the rest of the room, it dawned on him that he had not been a particularly good friend. To the groom, but to others as well. To all those he called friends, in fact, in some way or another. Close friends and acquaintances, from his schooldays through to university and work, people he had met in London or left behind in his hometown. By allowing himself to be persuaded to end friendships by others who did not have had his best interests in mind. By not keeping in touch, by permitting their expiration. By being unreliable and unpredictable. He had not been a good friend. Nor had he been a good brother.

For him, friendship was determined by how much solitude he could endure before he needed the proximity or comfort of another. It was hardly surprising that none of his friends had asked him to be their best man. Why would they? He had been a bad friend. He recognised that now.

As he continued drinking, he wondered if he should try to get hold of some cocaine. Considered the logistical difficulties. People were leaving their tables in tell-tale twos and threes, so he knew there was some around. Instead, after being struck with hiccups, he staggered outside. Frost was forming on the grass of the ornamental garden. The moon cut a sickle in the night sky. A band started up inside the coach house. Cursing, he paced back and forth through the garden. Clenched his fists. Held his breath. Slapped himself in the face. The hiccups passed.

His wife appeared at his side. When they returned to the party, the covers band had kicked into ‘Uptown Funk’, and the ushers were bouncing the groom in the air, like a five-a-side team whose hapless striker had finally ended his goal drought.

He woke the next morning with acute stomach cramps. After his wife went down for breakfast he walked into the bathroom and put his fingers down his throat. Feeling better, he showered and followed his wife downstairs, where he chewed on a flavourless croissant and sipped sweet tea.

There was some activity on the streets of Whitney. Human voices and the movement of machinery. Then he remembered it was Remembrance Sunday. The centenary celebrations for Armistice Day. One hundred years since the end of the Great War. Across the country, town centres and city squares had been swept and polished until they shone like brass buttons, like barracks ready for inspection, ready for the respectful, sombre crowds that were beginning to gather. Whitney had been festooned with commemorative poppy displays. Now the roads were being closed for the big parade. Members of the British Legion were milling around in uniform, medals proudly on display. Baby-faced cadets circulated among them with poppies pinned to their breast.

They got into the car. His wife pulled away from the Blue Boar to begin their journey back Bristol airport. The roads were virtually empty. At any other time, he might have been tempted to stay for the wreath laying ceremony, but he felt like shit, and that shitty feeling superseded any good intentions about paying his respects. They had a plane to catch. A home to return to. Children to collect. Together, he and his spent the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the hundredth year sat in silence in their hire car, while the satellite navigation system urged them to merge with a new road.

The eponymous hero.

The eponymous hero.

x.

When people have no money, when they cannot find work or borrow any more, when their benefits are frozen, when they lose their health, they stop shopping altogether. When people have no money, when they default on their mortgage, when they lose their home. When they have nothing left.

In The Big Short, when the US financial system was bailed out by the Federal government, Mark Baum, the pugnacious fund manager played by Steve Carrell, observed: I have a feeling, in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.

In the calm of the new year, he watched another film, I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s docudrama set in a contemporary north-east of England. Daniel Blake is a middle-aged Geordie joiner approaching retirement who is forced to stop working after suffering a heart-attack on site. Despite being passed as unfit for work by a cardiologist, he fails the Department for Work and Pensions’ work capability assessment, which stops his employment and support allowance (ESA). He appeals against the decision and begins claiming jobseekers’ allowance, whose arcane requirements and continual threats of sanction are a source of continual stress.

Blake befriends a single mother at the Jobcentre, helping her make improvements to her council flat and accompanying her to a food bank. After being caught shoplifting, she turns to prostitution to feed her family. When Blake spray-paints a protest slogan on the wall of the job centre, he is arrested and cautioned by police. In the closing scenes, while waiting in court for his appeal to be heard, he suffers a heart attack in the toilets, and dies.

He watched the film in a state of acute agitation. The script by Paul Lavery was heavy on exposition, making the dialogue seem laboured and sometimes unconvincing. Loach’s trademark cinema verité style, relying on unknown actors, now seemed old hat, and the performances lacked the effortless insouciance of Loach’s best work. It seemed to miss its mark, but when screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, I, Daniel Blake was awarded the Palme D’Or. It also won the BAFTA for Best British Film, in addition to several smaller prizes across Europe and the US. Part-funded by the British Film Institute and BBC Films, I, Daniel Blake took $15.8m in box office receipts.

In the UK, the film was criticised by some for being too political, too left-wing, too fictional. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary and architect of the system to which Blake is subjected, called it ‘unfair’. The DWP denied any causal link between work capability assessments and instances of benefits claimants dying unexpectedly or taking their own life.

In 2018, Philip Alston, a special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, described the age of austerity as ‘a social calamity and an economic disaster’. Since 2010, the economic policies of the coalition and Conservative governments had left 14m people, one fifth of the population, living in poverty. Of these, ten per cent were classed as destitute. Penniless. Homeless. Without hope.

He had watched I, Daniel Blake to share some of Loach’s rage, but found it didn’t make him furious enough. It made him angry, but he wanted it darker. Instead he looked at the photography of Jim Mortram. For over a decade Mortram had been photographing the community in his Norfolk town, those who were at the sharp end of cuts to welfare and social services in the age of austerity. The isolated and infirm. The homeless and bereaved. The ignored and forgotten.

The title Mortram had given to his project was Small Town Inertia. The photographs him a little of that of Paul Graham and Richard Billingham, with some Don McCullin and Nan Goldin thrown in for good measure, but had distinctive social realist vernacular of its own. It was raw, polemical, humanitarian.

Small town inertia. Copyright Jim Mortram.

Small town inertia. Copyright Jim Mortram.

He knew of Mortram’s work from following him on Twitter, but he didn’t really know the man, hadn’t met him, shook his hand and held his gaze, but he felt that he recognised the Loachian quality to his work. Mortram was angry. He could see that. The photographs bespoke his rage. They insisted on being seen, on upsetting sensibilities, resisting interpretation. They were pure and true, returning dignity to those who had seen their dignity seep away over countless years, where each day passed the same as the last, where nobody came and nobody noticed and nobody cared. The sanctions and sectionings, the squats and temporary accommodation, the estranged families and lost children. The unpalatable facts of life that I, Daniel Blake skirted around.

In February 2019, a Jeff Hayward, from Clithero, Lancashire, won a fit-for-work appeal seven months after his death. Hayward had spent the last eighteen months of his life fighting against the health assessor’s decision to refuse him ESA, and he died just two weeks before his appeal tribunal. In the same week, the Work and Pensions secretary, Amber Rudd MP, admitted that the roll-out of universal credit, the new benefits payment introduced by the coalition government in 2010, had lead to a rise in the use of foodbanks across the UK. Up 52% according to the Trussell Trust.

Life imitating art imitating life. A picture tells a thousand stories.

Small town inertia. We’re all in it together.


xi.

In the summer, quite unexpectedly, he received a wedding invitation in the post. One of his university friends, the last confirmed bachelor, was finally getting married that autumn.

Since leaving university, his friend had worked principally as a trader, a job which he was capable of but perhaps not well suited for. By his friend’s own admission, the stress of working in the financial sector had taken its toll on his personal relationships. His friend’s frustrations were not uncommon. He knew that had he entered the financial sector, his response to the job would have been much the same. Over time, his friend had succumbed to the pressures of his job. After an incident at work, he was put on gardening leave for twelve months. During this period, his friend returned to university to start a Masters.

A few months after he left his job, he met his friend for lunch at a restaurant near his home. Over steak and a mid-range Pinotage his friend told him what had happened. He seemed like a man reborn, rejuvenated and excited about the future. His friend’s old gleeful self, the self he had first encountered at university, had returned. He mentioned that he had started seeing someone, and that things were going well.

By coincidence, the weekend the happy couple had chosen for their wedding was the same weekend as his own wedding anniversary. He and his wife had been planning an anniversary trip to Amsterdam for the autumn, but being financially unable to do both, they decided to put their city break on hold.

The wedding was to be held in a converted coach house just outside Whitney, an affluent market town in Oxfordshire in the heart of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency. He and his wife booked a room at the aptly-named The Blue Boar, an upmarket pub with rooms in the town centre. If this was to be their anniversary trip, they might as well treat themselves.

On the afternoon of the flight, the first winter storm of the season swept in from the Atlantic. Approaching Bristol airport, their plane was pitched violently from side to side as it made its landing approach, the landing gear hitting the runway tarmac hard. The entire fuselage seemed to bend on impact. They disembarked in driving rain, and hastened to the car hire facility, grateful to still be in one piece.

On the day of the wedding, he arrived early with his wife and a handful of friends. The vast coach house was almost empty, save for the ushers and a couple of other guests. The ushers he knew from London, but several he hadn’t spoken to in years. For a time, they had all socialised together. When people he knew had lost their jobs during the financial crisis, he had said nothing. Secretly, he was glad. He wanted everyone in that sector to suffer. For their arrogance. Their hubris. Their assured belief in trickle down and property-owning democracy. Their lack of empathy. Their general disinterestedness.

After falling out with the groom, he had lost contact with many of them. Most worked in the finance sector, as traders, underwriters, IT consultants. As financial collapse gave way to a global credit crunch, some had lost their jobs at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan and others. Some took lower prestige roles at small-scale start-ups or consultancies, while others switched institution. Some had cashed in on their London homes and moved to the Home Counties. All had ridden out the recession. They were doing well. Making good. Being content.

One of the ushers invited the guests to take their seats. They rounded the corner into another hall, an old stable where a string quartet was playing. He and his wife took their seats near the back. The groom entered with the best man and took their positions at the front of the room. After a short pause, a flower girl walked up the aisle. Next the bridesmaids arrived, one by one, as if teasing the groom. Finally the bride appeared, arm in arm with proud father.

The ceremony was mercifully quick, with a brief exchange of vows and a smattering of short readings. The groom’s father read a poem about a mountain that he had written in Welsh. Once the register had been signed, everyone was invited outside for the group photographs. In the press of people offering their congratulations to the bride and groom, he missed the chance to do the same.

Once seated for dinner, he took the chance to survey the familiar faces dotted around the room. Everyone looked older. It was to be expected, but it still surprised him, the changes in complexion. The men were looser round the middle, some with bald spots and greying beards. Age had lent greater elegance to the women, wedded to a faint weariness from balancing motherhood and career. There was a closeness and an equanimity within their social group that he envied, for he had never been wholly part of that group, but always slightly outside of it. All the couples had endured save for one, and the wronged half of that failed marriage, with new beau in tow, was by the time of the speeches almost insensible from drink.

This, he thought, was what Hank Paulson had meant by too big to fail. The laughter-lined faces, the clinking glasses, the tipsy and relieved mother of the groom, the proud and austere father of the bride, the confetti snagged like technicolour dandruff in the hair of the kissing couple, the three course meal and string quartet and the luxury stationary.

He wasn’t sure if this was what George Osborne meant when he said, We’re all in it together.

Listening to the speech by the best man, whose affectionate, gentle ribbing of the groom alluded to the all-too-familiar foibles of their friend, and perhaps it was the copious amounts of alcohol he had drunk by that point in proceedings, or simply fatigue, or the emotional undercurrents of the occasion, but sat at that table in the recesses of the room, it dawned on him that he had not been a particularly good friend. To the groom, but to others as well. To all those he called friends, in fact, in some way or another. Close friends and acquaintances, from his schooldays through to university and work, people he had met in London or left behind in his home town. By allowing himself to be persuaded to end friendships by others who did not have had his best interests in mind. By not keeping in touch, by permitting their expiration. By being unreliable and unpredictable.

For him, friendship was determined by how much solitude he could endure before he needed the proximity or comfort of another. It was hardly surprising that none of his friends had asked him to be their best man. Why would they? He had been a bad friend. He recognised that now.

He doubled down on his drinking, wondered if he should try to get hold of some cocaine. People were leaving their tables in twos and threes, so he knew there was some around. Instead, after being struck with hiccups, he staggered outside. Frost was forming on the grass of the ornamental garden. The moon cut a sickle in the night sky. Cursing, he paced back and forth. Clenched his fists. Held his breath. Slapped himself in the face. Eventually, the hiccups passed.

His wife appeared at his side. When they returned to the party, the covers band had kicked into Uptown Funk, and the ushers were bouncing the groom in the air, like a five-a-side team whose hapless striker had finally ended his goal drought.

He woke the next morning with acute stomach cramps. After his wife went down for breakfast he walked into the bathroom and put his fingers down his throat. Feeling better, he showered and followed her downstairs to chew morbidly on a croissant and sip sweet tea.

There was some activity out on the street. Then he remembered it was Remembrance Sunday. The centenary celebrations for Armistice Day. One hundred years since the end of the Great War. Across the country, town centres and city squares had been swept and polished like barracks prepped for inspection, ready for the respectfully sombre gathering crowds. The market town where they were staying had already been festooned with commemorative poppy displays. Now the roads were being closed for the big parade. Members of the British Legion were milling around in uniform, medals proudly on display. Baby-faced cadets circulated among them, looking hopeful, poppies pinned where one day medals might be.  

As his wife pulled away from the Blue Boar to begin their journey back home, the roads were virtually empty. He had been tempted to watch the wreath laying ceremony, but he felt like shit, and that shitty feeling superseded any good intentions about paying his respects. They had a plane to catch. A home to return to. Children to collect. Instead, they spent the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month listening to the satellite navigation system urging them to keep straight ahead.

The Iggle Piggle Dance by Alex Williamson

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.

The Post Office by Alex Williamson

The Journey of a York

The Journey of a York

It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every year, that they would hire damned near anybody…

Charles Bukowski

First they were shown how to sort letters. To separate stamps at a glance, distinguishing between incipient values in an eyeblink. First class red. Second class blue. The special celebration stamps. The varying denominations. Small and large. Franked and unfranked. International and freepost. Subs and redirects. The difference between a letter and a parcel a matter of millimetres, milligrams, look and feel. A form of metaphilatelism. Unthinking identification. Timbrology in reverse.

He had worked for the post office before, partially to supplement his income from bar work following university, and partially after reading Bukowski’s Post Office. He believed there was a romance to postal work, a gritty earnestness that chimed with his affinity for all things vaguely socialistic. Though he soon discovered there was nothing romantic about rising and dressing in deep December darkness each morning, driving out to the next town to stick letters in pigeon holes for six hours in a vast depot, working under florescent strip lighting that gave him a headache, the cold midwinter wrapping around him like frozen cling film. He lasted three nights before coming down with a virus. Called in sick and didn’t go back.

On a wet Saturday in early November he attended a recruitment event at his local sorting office. He had expected it to be overwhelmed. In fact, there was only a handful of people there. The other recruits were mostly students and retirees. A few Eastern European workers. Mainly men. One or two women. Waiting to be interviewed, he listened as a couple from Poland were told that they were not eligible to work for the post office if they already had a job which conflicted with the required hours. The post office expected total commitment.

A whiteboard listed the available shifts in red marker pen.

Mon-Fri 5pm-8pm

Fri-Sat 12pm-6pm

Sat-Sun 10am-4pm

Calculating that he could maximise his income by working three hours a night for five weeks, when it was his turn to be interviewed, he put himself forward for the Mon-Fri shifts. He said he was available to work immediately. They took his photograph for the ID badge and said they would be in touch.

Two weeks later he started his first shift. It was already dark when he arrived at the depot. Only 5pm but it felt like the middle of the night. He gave his name to the female post office employee at the collection desk and was asked to take a seat and wait.

There were four plastic seats in the small waiting area, and another casual occupying one of those seats, a blonde boy in a black hooded jacket. He took a seat next to him and started reading Commercial Workers’ Union flyer. Other casuals arrived, filing in one by one, giving their name to the woman and following her instructions, as if waiting to claim the same parcel.

The rest of the team consisted entirely of men. Clad to a man in jeans and drab anoraks. The new Highland tartan. A few younger and a few older than him, but none his age. Some sat, others stood or hovered, impatient to get on with the job. One or two attempted to engage the woman in conversation, without much success, as she continually disappeared through a door behind the counter, presumably to confer with her seniors. Some had worked the Christmas period at the depot before, some hadn’t. Most kept their counsel. A few muttered, pithy comments. Stabs at humour.

A door opened. The woman came through into the and said, Follow me. She led them into a large meeting room and asked them to take a seat and wait. A man in a red Royal Mail fleece and ID badge on a lanyard came in. He introduced himself as a service manager, before handing round employee handbooks and non-disclosure agreements, which he asked everyone to sign.

Whistleblowers, he explained, collecting the signed forms. Not that there’s anything to worry about, he added. But you can’t be too careful.

The manager gave a brief introduction about their role in the Christmas period. Sorting post and parcels, other duties as required. There might be some overtime and work after Christmas for a fortunate few. Maybe a permanent job for those who impress. Then he switched on the TV at the far end of the boardroom to show them the health and safety video.

The video was either profoundly dated or chronically underfunded. For fifteen minutes they watched an actor impersonate a petty criminal from Dagenham, replete in stonewashed jeans and white trainers. When he wasn’t directing his Nadsat monologue to the camera, he engaged in a series of increasingly hapless attempts to pilfer various postage items, in a range of different scenarios, only to be repeatedly frustrated by the diligence of the service’s employees. Wile E. Coyote as East Enders extra.

Then followed more de riguer instructions about bending knees to lift letter trays, separating overfilled post bags and not running in the depot. If you see something that doesn’t look right, tell us.

Handbooks distributed, and non-disclosure forms signed, they were taken through to the back offices and given their ID badges. The manager handed out hi-viz vests, or PPEs, which he instructed them to wear whenever they crossed the lorry park.

The drivers swing around the corner of the loading yard, the manager said, and without the hi-viz they won’t see you in the dark. The hi-viz will stop you being crushed to death. So make sure you wear it. If you lose it, you may die.

He led the casuals out onto the depot floor, a huge warehouse which had been divided in two. One side was for incoming mail, with pigeonholes tagged with local postcodes, and the other was for outgoing mail, which had been collected from the post boxes around the city that day. The incoming side looked like it had been abandoned, while the outgoing side looked like it was building to some sort of physical crescendo, with Royal Mail employees in red polo shirts and fleeces moving quickly over the floor, or else stood at a long metal table with sloping edges, continually bending and twisting and jerking their arms like poorly-engineered prototype robots.

These workers were stood at what he learned was the open facing table, the last in the country, a throwback to the time when all post was manually sorted by hand. Every other major sorting office across the country now had some automated system in place. Here, they still relied on the dexterity and assiduousness of people.

As casuals, their job principally was to assist the regulars by sorting incoming post as it arrived, bagged and tagged on large metal-framed trolleys, or Yorks, as they were named after the city of their manufacture. Each York held up to twenty bags of letters, or ten bags of parcels. Sometimes letters and parcels were separated out, sometimes they weren’t. First class parcels were to be sorted with the bags of letters, while second class parcels were separated in a special sorting ring. Sorting second parcels became a much-coveted job, as it a complete doddle compared to sorting letters, which was hectic, repetitive and undertaken under the watchful gaze of the ever-present management.

The Yorks came into the depot through plastic doors and were swung into position close to the open facing table. One person snipped off the tag with scissors and tipped the bag onto the table, catching the deluge of mail before it slithered to the floor and pushing it into the centre in a manner akin to smearing butter on a huge piece of bread. The other casuals stood at the table, sorting the letters and reposting them into the appropriate pigeon hole underneath. Once the pigeon hole was full, the casual would bundle up the letters with a rubber band and drop it onto the conveyor belt, where they were unbundled and fed through a counting machine by a Royal Mail regular.

Key to the process was flow. Flow of post from the boxes to the collection vans, from the Yorks to the table, from the table to the man at the end. A seamless movement from sender to recipient without delay or disruption. The casuals were expected to slip as seamlessly as possible into that flow, to avoid a backlog of post building up. Collections deliveries came in at 5pm and the table should be clear of letters by 8pm. At that time, all Yorks containing first class post had to be out of the door and onto the back of delivery lorries.

To begin with he worked with deliberate care, examining every letter and stamp to identify its categorisation. All along the table, his fellow casuals worked laboriously, painstakingly, considering their envelopes as a philatelist might, holding the envelope and scrutinising it at length, before leaving their position at the table and waving it under the nose of the nearest manager, jabbering excitedly about incomplete addresses, unusual postage values, handwritten letters addressed to ‘Father Christmas, The North Pole’.

As the week wore on, their eagerness took its toll. They were working too fast, clearing the facing table before the next York could appear. The Christmas deluge had not yet materialised, only the first few Christmas cards had begun to trickle through. All they had to sort were invoices and a handful of late November mailshots tantalising people with Black Friday discounts. For that first week, most nights they were sent home after a couple of hours.

The regulars regarded them with amusement or disinterest, these enthusiastic upstarts from outside, deferential non-unionised co-workers doffing their caps to the management. Some welcomed the casuals, smiled as they passed and thanked them at their task, while others eyed them with suspicion or gave them a wide berth.

Christmas was undoubtedly their least favourite time of the year. Longer days, greater volumes of post and more grinning imbeciles in civvies and hi-viz vests stampeding around the depot floor as if they were doing them a favour by being there. Once the casuals were gone and Christmas was done, it would be back to business as usual, the same tasks over and over, day in, day out. Large letters. Franked mail. Special deliveries. Subs.

The only time he saw one of the regulars lose his cool was when someone changed the radio station from MFR to Magic FM, which happened to be playing non-stop Christmas hits. After thirty minutes of Jonah Lewie, Shakin’ Stevens and Maria Carey et al, one of the regulars left his work station to volubly demand that they changed the fucking station back to MF fucking R. The piped music stopped, and he returned to scanning first class parcels without further word.

By the start of the second week he had fully merged into the flow of the depot, his body intuitively discovering the most efficient way of identifying stamps and retrieving letters from the pile and slipping them into the pigeon holes at speed, in a frenetic blur of limbs and folded paper. Another cohort of casual recruits began that week. He watched them lifting letters from the pile, ponderously turning them over to consider their destination, as he tipped the heavy bags onto the tables, one after the other pouring an unceasing flow of envelopes.

With a couple of the other casuals they came across a piece of art brut, a York daubed in graffiti by various unknown hands. The collaborative artwork, titled Journey of a York, recorded all the depots and postal districts the York had visited for since 2015. Plymouth, Bolton, Potters Bar, Preston. He thought of the millions of parcels and letters that York had contained. Countless legible acts of kindness and condolence, threats and demands, congratulations and commiserations. All the hands that had pushed this York from one end of the country to another, the thousands of fingers that had picked and sorted its ghostly contents. A testament to humanity. They added Inverness, Dec-2017, and began filling the York with parcels

The third week it snowed heavily, and the Yorks came in covered in water, with a crust of slush on their plastic base. Edges of Christmas cards crinkled by snow. Another cohort of casuals arrived, less impressive than the last, slower, doubly ponderous, less adept at sorting, less cognisant of the need to maintain the flow. The managers pressed them to work faster. He had anticipated more frenzied screaming from the manager, but instead they remained impeccably calm. Firm with their requests, but never tyrannical. They were used to this, the culmination of months of planning from Head Office and the regional director.

Come December the entire population of the Scottish Highlands decided to post their Christmas cards en mass. These now comprised the bulk of the post, a range of sizes and shapes, confusing the casuals with their identical first and second-class stamps. The dribble which had become a torrent now became a deluge.

The depot could no longer cope with the volume of letters coming in each night. Instead he and some of the other casuals were tasked with traying the letters up so they could be passed to another depot. There they would be sorted by machine and redistributed. It was quicker to tray up the letters and get them back into the mail vans than attempting to sort them at the depot. Not that they weren’t still trying to sort some of the post. One night he watched two tippers working flat out, like pistons in an engine at full throttle, tipping bag after bag onto a table overflowing with letters, a cluster of angry-looking Yorks massing behind them.

Along with the original cohort, he had graduated from sticking letters and tipping bags of post to sorting second class parcels, assisting with special deliveries, sorting incoming parcels. Dumping polystyrene boxes of smoked salmon and black pudding into mini-Yorks. Slam-dunking Amazon deliveries and Asos returns in the parcel ring. Pushing bagged parcels through a pre-flight x-ray machine, with a broom handle dubbed ‘the podger’, while one of the regulars checked them for contraband.

The parcels were due to be put on a plane to the remote Scottish islands that evening. He asked one of the Polish girls if there was anything in particular they were looking for. Dildos, she replied. Stornoway parcels are always full of dildos.

He found a small role in the world for himself that Christmas, facilitating the spread of festive goodwill in some nominal way. Seeing all the cards and letters to Santa bearing a child’s handwriting, the envelopes addressed to those living alone, the parcels of presents with Please be careful or Merry Christmas scribbled on them. The lengths people went to make someone happy. Make just one someone happy. And the work of post office, helping others make just one someone happy, was nothing less than heroic. He found it profoundly moving.

Late sending his Christmas cards that year, he took his bundle up to the conveyor belt and placed the cards directly upon it, watched them travel along the belt and into the hands of the regular who passed them through the counting machine and stacked them in a tray, certain they would reach their destination before Christmas Eve, while resignedly accepting that few of those sentiments would now be returned, if any, while retaining the faintest belief, like the hushed faith at the heart of the season, that each card represented a warm embrace or the briefest smile, however fleeting.