And Sons

i.

The last time he went to visit his parents, he took his sons to look at a building site. It was a small site, barely large enough to accommodate the two houses on it. Both were in modern red brick, with an apex porch and narrow front windows. Peas in a pod. A temporary metal fence fringed the site’s perimeter, and a small sign attributed the work to his father’s company. As they pulled up in their car, he said to his children, Remember these houses, boys. These are the last your grandpa will ever build. His father was calling time on the business. Most of his workforce had already gone, taken the redundancy pay and gone off to set up on their own. Now there was only one joiner left finishing the interior work, a lad who came to him as an apprentice and worked for him for almost thirty years. Then he too would be gone. After that the company would fold. His father had done his duty. Now he was going to enjoy his retirement.

As the first born son of the first born son, this was his inheritance. Carrying the business bearing his grandfather’s name into the next century. A business which had survived three financial crashes and the subsequent recessions. A business which had a good reputation for reliability and craft. To cement the good work already done. All the homes built or renovated or extended. Seeds sown in labour, yielding blooms of brick. This was his inheritance, his responsibility. His father had done his duty, now it was up to him. Growing up, it had never entered his head for one moment that he might. Son, you can do whatever you want to do, his father told him, back when he was living with his parents after university and deciding what to do next. His father had been pushing him on his plans for months, and he had no answer. Hashish has that effect. As soon as he said it, the mildness of the delivery, he knew his father was giving him permission to walk away. To take the road less travelled. Now guilt churned inside him like the maw of a cement mixer. This was his inheritance, and he had turned his back on it.

They sat there for a short while, the car’s engine puttering under the hood, then drove away. Further along the road they passed a large residential development. Forty houses on a plot which less than a year ago had been a field of grazing cows. In place of the cows were rows of identikit houses. Townhouses and semis. Flat-fronted and featureless. Tightly-packed into the plot, like cattle at a market. A large advertising hoarding displayed the company’s familiar logo, accompanied by head-office-approved marketing blurb. Bucolic Cheshire village. Unspoilt countryside views. Quaint local amenities. Excellent schools. Perfect place to raise a family. Easy commuting distance. Final plots remaining. A little further down the road there was another development, by a different housebuilder. Sixty new homes awaiting upwardly-mobile couples or happy families.

Now, when he compared those two houses to the vast estates, he recognised that his father’s working life had been one of near-constant struggle. Not penury or impoverishment, but the persistent pressure of keeping a company afloat. Spotting opportunities. Raising capital. Buying land. Reinvesting. Visiting clients and preparing estimates. Keeping himself and the men he employed in work. Earning a living. A phrase that frequently cropped up around the family home. Earning a living. As though living was something which came at a price. A standard one became accustomed to.

ii.

His grandfather founded his building firm, as he often liked to recount, with little more than a wheelbarrow and a bag of lime. If there was a more than touch of exaggeration to this, his humble beginnings were unquestionably true. Born between the wars, son of a publican, youngest of nine children, his family cramped into the rooms above a spit-and-sawdust coaching tavern in Arclid, a small village on the road between Sandbach and Congleton. Narrowly avoided conscription during the last war, but did his national service as an air cadet, and once demobbed, entered the building trade. A member of his local Methodist chapel and active Rotarian, he was a lively presence at social functions. Generous. Gregarious.

A firm established by his grandfather in the early fifties taken into new management by his father in the early eighties. His grandfather had successfully grown the firm from a one-man band to a medium-sized employer of two dozen trades. Brickies, chippes, joiners, plumbers, plasterers, labourers. Young apprentices and old lags. But it was too much for him to manage on his own. His father frequently described how his grandfather lined the men up in the morning, gave them all a lengthy bollocking, and dispatched them, with fleas in their ears, to site. His health was suffering. Bad nerves. His grandfather’s GP had advised him to take a nip of whisky if he felt a panic attack coming on, and his father also like to tell of being called by his grandfather from some layby or other, where he had become incapacitated by drink after having one nip too many while driving.

Fraternity

i.

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

ii.

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

iii.

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

iv.

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

v.

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

vi.

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

vii.

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

viii.

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

ix.

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

x.

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

xi.

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

xii.

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

xiii.

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

xiv.

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

xv.

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

xvi.

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

xvii.

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

xviii.

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

xix.

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

xx.

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

xxi.

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

xxii.

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

xxiii.

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

xxiv.

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

xxv.

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

xxvi.

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

xxvii.

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

xxviii.

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

xxix.

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

xxx.

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

xxxi.

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

xxxii.

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

xxxiii.

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

xxxiv.

That autumn his school holds auditions for O! What a Lovely War, the annual stage production directed by the rotund deputy head with a furious temper. He joins they boy with the pinned back ears and the other A-level drama students at the reading. Flushed with self-confidence after the week in Cornwall, he reads in a number of regional British accents, and is cast, somewhat incongruously, as Sir John French and Kaiser Wilhelm II (on account of his blonde hair). He soon finds that being a passable mimic is not the same as being a passable actor, and as rehearsals move from being a bit of a lark to a matter of life and death, his terror at what he has committed himself gives him a stress migraine. In the latter stages of rehearsals he becomes so ill with the flu that he ponders pulling out, but the deputy head, like a porcine Colonel, is capable of such spectacularly explosive bollockings that he decides to soldier on. Miraculously, by the opening night the flu is gone, and he makes it through without fluffing his lines, and with his voice cracking only the once. Maybe twice. He has prevailed. His German accent, however, has not.

xxxv.

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

xxxvi.

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

xxxvii.

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

xxxviii.

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

xxxix

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

xxxx.

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

xxxxi.

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

xxxxii.

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

xxxxiii.

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

The Lost Child

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

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

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

The Dream

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

Spinning straw from gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdwatching

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

Sand is overrated. Its just tiny little rocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we rare birds? The woman from California asked.

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

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

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

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

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

The Reader

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

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

The Househusband

i.

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

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

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

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

 

ii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

iii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iv.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone loves a happy ending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iv.

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

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

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

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

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

 

He is God

John Rasin is God

He stands by the window smiling

Watching a child walk by

‘I am God!’ He screams. He knows

 

His wife taps him on the shoulder.

‘John the baby is sick will die

His fever is up. Get a doctor.’

 

John Rasin stands as though he were dead

With the health and freshness of life

Exaggerated in his deathness

He stands a man stunned with the realisation

That he’s God. He is God!

 

His wife pleads screams stamps the floor

Pounds her fists against the wall

‘John the baby will die!’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

v.

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

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

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

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

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

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

vii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwing in the towel. Letting himself go.

vii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ix.

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

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

I just believe in me.

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

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

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

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

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

The Rottweiler

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

The Stag Beetle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small moments. Small matters.

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

The Tooth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does he brush his teeth?

Of course.

When? How often?

Twice a day. After breakfast and before bed.

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

Bit of both.

Do you want me to fill it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Appraisal

 

i.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

iii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next day he handed in his notice.

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

 

iv.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Newspaper

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

Norman Mailer

i.

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

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

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

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

ii.

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

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

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

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

iii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping his parents. Building a relationship. Being deferential.

iv.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

v.

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

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

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

The clerk

He’s not allowed in here.

The journalist

I’m sorry?

The clerk

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

The journalist

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

The clerk

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

The journalist.

Ah. Right

The clerk

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

The journalist

I see.

The clerk

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

The journalist

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

The clerk

How long’s a piece of string?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

v.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Iggle Piggle Dance

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

The Photographer

He first met the photographer a few weeks before Christmas, at an open studio event near his flat.

His favoured prints had been framed and hung on the walls of his studio. Industrial landscapes which recalled Burtynsky and the Bechers. A stack of other prints had been arranged in a wooden crate like rare vinyl. Bunting and beachfronts. Bleached-out colours.

As he flicked through the prints, it was clear that the photographer’s technical ability was his strength. These were clean, sharp, well-composed pictures. But they were lacking in some way. Soulless. Without joy or humour. Perhaps it was the digitisation. Perhaps something else.   

The photographer was portly and balding, with a careful laugh and the finest trace of a beard. A few years older than he was, he comported himself with reserve, with a studied arrogance, as if he wasn’t completely confident of the quality of his work, his aesthetic. His perception.   

He introduced himself and complimented the photographer on his work, explaining that he was a relative newcomer to contemporary photography, trying to bring it into his realm of knowledge. The photographer listened distractedly, then disappeared into a dark room for a moment and returned with a handful of books. The photographer said he should take them away and study them.

The Hungry Eye by Walker Evans. Dream Street by W. Eugene Smith. Shinjuku by Daido Moriyama. He had already come across some of their work in the writer Geoff Dyer’s unfolding digressive essay on photography, The Ongoing Moment. While he admired the American flair for striking compositions, he was by now more interested in the mundane British vernacular of photographers such as Martin Parr or Paul Graham. He didn’t mention this to the photographer, and with gratitude took the books on loan.

The photographer’s partner was also a photographer. Their work was very different. Her work had a depth, a visual power that her partner was only able to gesture towards. Standing in their compact and stylish home, adorned with their respective bodies of work, he found himself envying their life, their art. It was one of her prints he bought that day, framed and ready to be hung in his living room, on the wall where it could be seen from the street.

He wasn’t taking photographs at all back then, but in the months that followed he became increasingly obsessed with the form, purchasing different formats of cameras, trying out different techniques, trying to teaching himself what worked and what didn’t. He studied the websites of the photographers to try to get a feel for what distinguished their work, their individual aesthetic. It was then that he truly appreciated the technical quality to their work, the precision of their technique and the delicate balance of their compositions, and knew he would never be able to replicate it.

A few months later there was another open studio event and he expressed an interest in possibly buying one of the photographer’s pipe pictures. The photographer said he would send him some small prints of the photographs, which he posted through his letter box a week later. The prints had been glued onto small squares of MDF and then joined together with duct tape to make an elaborate concertina portfolio. He looked at the prints, and the prices, and realised he couldn’t afford any of them.

There followed a slightly terse email from the photographer requesting the return of the concertina. He took it to their home and finding the large metal gate closed, dropped them into the letterbox.

The next time he saw the photographer, he had been taking photographs more purposefully, more concretely, for the past year. Upon hearing this the photographer offered him some wall space at the next open studios event. He couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

When he had a handful of photographs which he believed to be good, workman-like, or not bad for a beginner, he attached them to an email and wrote, Some photographs I’ve taken recently. Quite pleased with how they came out. Now wondering what I should do with them. Welcome any advice.

A week passed, then he received a response. Thank you for sending these over. I see you have been playing at being a photographer. Keep looking at the work of the great photographers, you can learn a lot from them. And always try to get a bit closer.

I see you’ve been playing at being a photographer. It felt like a slap down, a rebuke for infringing upon his territory. After that, they didn’t really speak again.

From time to time he would encounter the photographer in their local branch of Sainsbury’s and exchange the briefest of hellos. He always found it rather odd, seeing self-proclaimed artists engaged in everyday activities like visiting the local supermarket or walking the dog. He always felt they should be creating. As though their lives depended on it.  

Years later, after he had left London, he received an invitation by email to another open studios event. Just in time for Christmas, as always. He scanned the list of artists. The photographers were there. He wondered if they still had their little dog.

He clicked through to the photographer’s website and reacquainted himself with his work. It was much the same, a combination of the banal and commonplace, the everyday and overlooked. In his portfolio, he could identify the work of the great photographers, his influences. Few past or planned exhibitions. Waiting for that major retrospective.

He pictured him wandering in the hinterlands of some unfamiliar place, skin pinking in the sun, toes freezing inside his boots, camera lens dangling like a limp phallus. Finding something interesting and pointing his camera at it, framing the image with painstaking precision, failing at being a photographer.