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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.