A SMALL TASTE OF FREEDOM
A comic picaresque tale in fourteen chapters, being the adventures of two boys who flee their prestigious school to escape the attentions of predatory priests and whose headlong peregrinations and fortuitous encounters educate them in the ways of modern society.
Chapter One: Private Lessons
Chapter Two: Escape
Chapter Three: Love At First Lunacy
Chapter Four: The Mystery of Reflexology
Chapter Five: Big Trainers, Ginger and Smiler
Chapter Six: Double-Breasted
Chapter Seven: The Literature Factory
Chapter Eight: A Dog Called Chomsky
Chapter Nine: The Man With The John Lennon Specs
Chapter Ten: Square Meals and Square Music
Chapter Eleven: Abbey Road
Chapter Twelve: Homo Nordouesticus
Chapter Thirteen: Everything’s A Business
Chapter Fourteen: The Music
Private lessons were maybe the worst of it, but there was plenty that was bad. Strickland for example.
“You want to stay away from him,” said Robert.
“Do I?” said Anthony.
“’Cause he’s a bully.”
Anthony Cass had been lifted from his ex-Grammar comp, which still called itself a Grammar nearly forty years after its last eleven plus intake, and plonked in Clapforth School where his father, a successful lawyer and devout Anglican,was sure he would flourish. He was a bright boy. He was a conscientious boy. He was a dutiful boy. He was an Anglican boy. He had done well at Braddon Grammar but his parents wouldn’t leave him there because there was advantage to be had and who won’t buy advantage if they get the chance? His dad’s practice had grown. He specialised in conveyancing. As he said, “The advantage is, even snails have a house.” As most of his work was for well-heeled Anglicans, money poured through the windows. He could afford private education for Anthony. The best private education.
“Don’t people report him?”
“Molloy-Livingstone for example.”
“What will he do?”
“Teachers can’t ignore bullying.”
“Teachers can be bullies.”
“Hasn’t he offered you private lessons yet?”
“When he does, run a mile.”
Anthony had an encounter with Strickland in the changing rooms.
“You’re new. What’s your name, sprog?”
“Where’s Cleopatra.” Strickland laughed heartily. “Get it, sprog?”
“I thought you said gas. You don’t speak clearly. I thought it was Anthony Gas. You might go off with a bang,” and he laughed again.
Anthony was about to leave when the big lad, who was naked after his shower grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Where you goin’, Gas?”
“To my room.”
“Without my permission?,” said Strickland, rubbing his nethers with the towel he then wrapped round his neck.
“Can I go?” said Anthony.
“I don’t know, can you?”
Fortunately for Anthony, also lingering in the changing rooms was Lederer, a short, dark, wiry sportsman who played rugby and cricket for his county and was in the same year as Strickland. His intervention made the bully turn from his prey.
“Who are you talking to, Lederer?”
“Leave the kid alone.”
“Are you his protector? Is this your boyfriend, Gas?”
There followed a little skirmish, alarming to Anthony who’d never been in or seen a fight, in which Strickland grabbed Lederer by the collar and the smaller lad whacked him in the nose which such force he staggered back, hit his head against the wall, swayed like a tree about to fall in a high wind and sank onto the bench, his head bowed and blood dripping onto the floor.
“Best get out of here,” said Lederer. “If anyone asks, you saw nothing.”
Anthony and Robert shared a room. They were pals. Robert had been in the school since the age of eleven and had managed to avoid private lessons. His warnings proved prophetic when Anthony found himself offered extra help in Latin (which he didn’t need as he learnt languages as easily as he fell asleep) by Molloy-Livingstone. He was an odd little man of about fifty with a perpetually nervous manner and a curious habit of laughing at nothing. He would rise up on his toes and lower himself slowly as he talked to a boy. He had sturdy little legs and watching him walk down a corridor you could have been convinced that under his cassock were wheels which propelled him at a steady, effortless pace.
“I think you could benefit,” he said to Anthony. “If you come to my room twice a week. We could have an arrangement. That’s how I do things. I’ll improve your ablative absolute and you can do some little favours for me.”
“What kind of favours,sir?”
“Nothing too difficult, once you get used to them.”
“I think I can manage in Latin, thank you, sir.” said Anthony.
“Manage?” said Molloy-Livingstone. “Clapforth boys don’t manage. They run the country.”
“I understand the ablative absolute, sir” said Anthony.
“Yes, of course you do. But that’s not the point. You’d like to read Seneca in the original wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so, sir”
“That’s what I can offer. Twice a week. Come tomorrow at seven.”
“I’d rather not, sir.”
“I could get very unpleasant about this, Cass.”
Anthony asked Robert what getting unpleasant might mean.
“They do what they like. He could have you writing a thousand lines a day or keep you in detention or deny you privileges.”
“But that’s not fair.”
“This place doesn’t exist to be fair. We’re supposed to be tomorrow’s CEOs and Cabinet Ministers. The idea is to turn us into bastards.”
“I’m going to text my mum,” said Anthony.
“Why don’t you text yours?”
“Think I haven’t? I’ll bet you a year’s pocket money your mum won’t do anything.”
“She won’t. Your parents are paying more for you to be here than the average person earns a year. Molloy-Livingstone could put you on the rack and they wouldn’t believe it.”
“But I’m her son.”
“Yes, and she sent you here.”
“They think it’s a good place.”
“No, they don’t. They think it buys you a spot at the front of the queue. That’s what matters.”
“What does your mum say?”
“Same as my dad.” Anthony assumed the pompous RP of his folks. “It’s for the best, Robert. Stiff upper lip, son. You’ll thank us when you’re grown.”
“Did you tell them about Molloy-Livingstone?”
“I told them about everything. Money draws a curtain over corruption.”
“You don’t like being here, then?”
“Who’d stay given the choice? We’re all here to fulfil our parents’ ambitions. It’s a high-class form of abuse. It works. It ensures the country’s ruled by people with an emotional age of ten.”
“Why don’t you run away?”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m gonna get my mum to come and get me.”
“Is the bet on?”
Robert turned out to be right, again. Anthony’s parents, dismayed and disappointed that their investment was bringing a negative return, dismissed his fears of abuse and bullying. The public school ethos took a bit of getting used to. It might be stern but the rewards were worth it. The right approach was to buckle down and get on with it. He’d be glad when he was at Balliol and even gladder when he was earning ten million a year by thirty.
“What did I tell you?”
“There’s nothing for it,” said Anthony. “We’ve got to abscond.”
“And go where?”
“And sleep on the streets?”
“We’d have to find a way to make money. What can you do?”
“Play the guitar.”
“Can you sing?”
“ Not like Ian Bostridge. But if Mike Jagger’s a singer, so am I.”
“That’s it. You can busk.”
“I’ll be recognised.”
“We’ll employ disguise.”
“We’ll never get away with it.”
“You want to stay here?”
“What a choice.”
“It’s worth a try. We’ve got our bikes. We could be thirty miles away before they know we’ve gone.”
“Tony, this is the age of satellites, of cameras, of
digital communication. We’d be nabbed before we got anywhere near
“We’ll have to be clever than they are.”
“We’re a pair of teenage schoolboys. How can we take on the power and expertise of the State? You can’t clean your teeth these days without someone recording it.”
“Don’t be a defeatist. We’ve got anonymity on our side. We can disappear into big cities and live on our wits.”
“That’s what those people sleeping in shop doorways thought.”
“But we’ve had the best education money can buy.”
“I have, for two and a bit years. You haven’t even started.”
“Breeding must count for something.”
“We aren’t going to be exhibited at Crufts.”
“We come from superior stock.”
“No, we don’t, our folks just have money.”
“Yeah, because they’re superior.”
“How do yours stack it up?”
“My dad runs his own legal practice.”
“Ah, Stingem and Bankit, Solicitors at law. It’s a racket.”
“My dad is highly qualified.”
“I bet he doesn’t represent benefit claimants.”
“He employs people who do.”
“Another fine scam. They do the hard work, claim Legal Aid and he trousers the profits.”
“He works very hard.”
“What’s his area?”
“For the rich, I suppose.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“What, being rich?”
“No, representing the rich.”
“Some poor, idealistic soul has to do it.”
“Anyway, how did you parents make their money?”
“Both of them?”
“No, just my mother.”
“They must lay a lot of bricks to afford to send you here.”
“My dad doesn’t lay ‘em any more. He has men to do that for him. He calls himself a property developer., which means he buys up tatty houses, tarts ‘em up on the cheap and flogs ‘em for a mega profit.”
“But you talked posh when you mocked him.”
“He does talk posh. He had elocution lessons. He sounds like a minor royal.”
“Well, he must have the entrepreneurial spirit.”
“What’s that? Can you catch it from toilet seats ?”
“It must be in his genes.”
“If there’s a gene for being a wide-boy, my dad’s got it. Personally, I think he made a choice.”
“A good one.”
“It got you here.”
“What are we running away for, then?”
Anthony spent the whole of his waking time for the next fortnight planning the
getaway. He timed Robert riding his Boardman racer round the grounds and calculated his average speed at
twenty two point four kilometres an hour. He plotted the route to
“This place has driven you mad already,” said Robert.
“Madness would be staying here.”
“I agree, but we’ve about as much chance of getting free as the people of
“We can’t accept tyranny. It’s against human nature.”
“Then most of the world lives in a state of denial.”
“That’s not my business right now. I have to escape from cruelty and corruption. I mean, we do.”
“We need another planet.”
“You don’t believe what goes on here is right.”
“No one does. Everyone knows it’s pants but everyone goes along with it because the system’s ruled by money.”
“You can make money without being corrupt or cruel.”
“People run all kinds of businesses.”
“Correct, and in all of ‘em some poor bastard is at the bottom and shat on.”
“Do your parents know you hold these opinions?”
“My grandad was a bricklayer like my dad. He was a trade unionist all his life.”
“What happened to him?”
“He got blacklisted and died in poverty.”
“He should’ve been a good worker not a trouble maker.”
“Like you should be a good pupil not an absconder.”
At four in the morning, Anthony crept from his bed and went barefoot to check all the exits. There was always the possibility of the fire escape, but it might be alarmed. All the major doors were locked.
“You realize we’re trapped in this place at night?” he said to Robert.
“They fear we might sneak out at dawn and ravish the local young beauties in their beds.”
“If there was a fire, we could be roasted.”
“If there was a fire, I’d chuck Molloy-Livingstone on it.”
“We may have to improvise a rope and go out of the window.”
“An improvised rope sounds like a shortcut to a broken leg.”
“Or we could tunnel out.”
“I’ll order a JCB for the morning. Go to sleep.”
On his third nocturnal tour, in almost total darkness, Anthony found a door four feet high at the bottom of a flight of six stone steps. It was barred but there was no lock. He crouched through and found himself at the rear of the school where the endless rugby fields stretched into the blue-black night. It was a few hundred yards from the bike lock-up. They’d have to break in. He’d need to pinch a hacksaw, a chisel and a hammer from the caretaker’s office.
“I’ve got it,” he said, shaking Robert.
“Take penicillin, it’ll clear up.”
“You’ve got a door?”
“No, there is a door.”
“There are bloody dozens of doors, you drongo.”
“An open door.”
“Does a genie appear when you rub the magic lamp?”
“It’s half past four in the morning, you’ve woken me up to tell me you’ve found a door, and I’m supposed to be serious.”
“We can get out.”
“No, when the plan’s finalised.”
“Oh, will we have left the EU by then?”
“It’s ideal. The bikes are round the corner. We can be out and away in minutes.”
“There are cameras on every corner. They trigger lights and alarms.”
“I’ll disable them.”
“When did you get your degree in electronics?”
“I can nick the caretaker’s side cutters. Any idiot can sever wires.”
“Any idiot can set off every siren in the place doing so.”
“I prefer to trust to reason. I’m a great fan of the Enlightenment.”
“We’ll be gone by the weekend.”
“And caught by Monday.”
“If they catch us, we’ll grass.”
“And they’ll believe us. A pair of runaways who robbed from the caretaker and trashed the hundred grand security system in the most highly-though-of Anglican prison in the country.”
“They’ll have to investigate. It’s their duty.”
“Their first allegiance is to their wallets.”
“Anyway, if we get on the news and in the paper, it’ll draw attention to what’s going on.”
“Yeah, and what’s going on is you plotting the great escape. Someone should turn it into a film.”
“They can’t allow criminality to go unpunished.”
“They won’t. We’ll be charged with criminal damage and given several hundred hours of community service.”
“Our crimes are petty. Theirs are enormous.”
“Haven’t you noticed the jails are full of pickpockets and shoplifters while
“But this is
“Yes, that’s why Russian drug barons launder their dosh here.”
Undeterred by his friend’s scepticism, Anthony sneaked into the caretaker’s office while he was snoozing at his desk, a blue and white hooped mug of tea cooling beside him, examined the control panel for the alarm system and stole the necessary tools.
“Now you’re a criminal,” said Robert. “What you’re trying to escape here you may experience in Wormwood Scrubs.”
“I’m too young to go to prison.”
“They have places for people of our age. Every paedophile in the land is trying to get a job one.”
“Friday night, we’re on.”
“What, fish and chips?”
“The optimum time is four a.m.”
“We’ll have to cycle the lanes in the inky dark.”
“All the better. We won’t be seen.”
“I’ve got no lights.”
“I have but they won’t be switched on.”
“I think your brain has switched off.”
“Dress in black.”
“I was told on my road safety awareness course always to wear a high-vis jacket when cycling after dark.”
“And I’ve got these.”
Anthony produced two knitted, navy-blue balaclavas.
“Dark blue doesn’t suit my colouring.”
“Put it on.”
Robert slipped it over his head and examined himself in the mirror.
“I could be a recruit to ISIS or the Real IRA. They’ll probably shoot us on sight.”
“The police don’t carry guns in this country.”
“They do when dangerous criminals are on the loose.”
“We’re victims of institutionalised abuse.”
“It’s called education. Do you imagine the Church of England is going to be brought down by a couple of disgruntled teenagers? They’ve been at this caper for centuries.”
“Justice is on our side.”
“Yeah, but they’ve got god and he’s ruthless.”
It occurred to Anthony it would be useful to have the bike lock-up open before they sneaked out. Its wooden doors were padlocked. At midnight he went down with the hacksaw, the chisel and the hammer. The blade behind the hasp, he was straining to pull out the screws when he heard the hidden door he’d come out of creak open. He ducked under the nearby, tall rose whose blooms hung over the bike shed roof. The first to emerge was Molloy-Livingstone, slippers on his feet and wrapped in a white dressing-gown. He paused a second, looked around furtively and cocked an ear as if trying to locate a sound he’d heard. Apparently reassured, he jerked his head and there emerged a nun in full habit. Anthony started in surprise and a thorn stuck in his backside.
“What was that?” said Molloy-Livingstone, under his breath.
“Sshh,” said his companion.
“Did you hear something?”
She shook her head. The priest peered into the darkness.
“I’m sure I heard a rustle in the bushes near the bike shed.”
“It’s probably a hedgehog,” she said. “I’ve got to go.”
Molloy-Livingstone looked down at her and took her in his arms.
“You go all right,” he said.
“Did you like my outfit?”
“You horny little sister,” he said.
Anthony tried to shift the point from his buttock.
“There,” said Molloy-Livingstone. “Did you hear that?”
“It’s your imagination,” she said. “Who could be out here at this time of night?”
“Well, we are.”
“Yes, but we’ve got good reason.”
He looked down at her once more and kissed her. Anthony began to wonder how long this blissful farewell might go on. Molloy-Livingstone was working her skirt up to her backside.
“Not out here, Dagon,” she said.
Anthony almost exploded into laughter.
“And again,” said Molloy-Livingstone, turning from her. “Didn’t you hear it? I’m going to investigate.”
“I must be off.”
Torn between his desire for one more kiss and his need to discover the origin of the noise, he embraced her for the last time. She minced off into the night and Molloy-Livingstone came forward, his neck craning like collared dove in search of food. He moved the branches of the rose but catching his finger on a thorn drew back and sucked the wound.
“Fuck it,” he said in a whisper. “What I need is a torch.”
Anthony watched him go, nipped out and hid himself behind the tall sycamore directly opposite the secret exit. When the crouching teacher reappeared, directing the bright beam towards the bike shed and the bushes, he tiptoed across the path behind him, slipped in and scooted to his room.
“Oh, Christ,” he said, rubbing his rear.
“What’s up?” said Robert.
“I got a prick in my arse.”
“Did you run into Molloy-Livingstone?”
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“With his girlfriend.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t a Year Thirteen in drag?”
“In the school?”
“By the bike shed.”
“Were they having a vape?”
“If they had’ve been it would’ve been post-coital.”
“He’s bi-sexual, then.”
“He probably does it with dogs. And do you know what his name is?”
The two of them spluttered helplessly.
“Isn’t that from science fiction?” said Robert, wiping his eyes.
“ Okay. An ancient Mesopotamian and Canaanite deity.”
“He’s a god.”
“He thinks he is.”
“Worshipped as a bringer of fertility.”
“She’d better watch out then.”
“Thought to be related to the idea of a fish god but more likely to be derived from the word for grain, therefore implying agriculture and fertility.”
“He’s certainly ploughing her furrow.”
“As you sow so shall you reap.”
“We’re going at four.”
“But I haven’t packed.”
“We aren’t off to Lanzarote for a fortnight. Throw a change of clothes in a rucksack. That’s all we can take.”
“And my guitar.”
“No, too cumbersome.”
“Cumbersome? My guitar is sleek and beautiful.”
“How are you gonna carry it?”
“Across my back.”
“You’ve got to cycle. Fast.”
“No difficulty. Haven’t you ever seen Bradley Wiggins powering along with a Stratocaster across his shoulders?”
“It’ll make you too conspicuous.”
“You mean the brilliant disguise of two young lads pedalling like lunatics through the landscape in the early hours will be shattered by the give-away of a second-hand acoustic.”
“Okay. You can take it. But if it slows us down I’m tossing it the nearest river.”
“Don’t talk about tossing when we’ve just mentioned Molloy-Livingstone. It makes me nervous.”
Attired from sole to pate in black, their balaclavas over their heads, their petty patrimony stored in their backpacks and Robert’s guitar in its case slung across his, they took a last look at their shared room.
“In a funny way,” said Anthony, “I’ll miss this place.”
“Don’t worry,” said Robert, “you’ll be back within forty-eight hours.”
Silently they negotiated the corridors but when they came to the flight of stairs down to the stretch leading to the concealed way out, they drew back and gulped as they saw Strickland, naked, ascending. They drew close to the wall as he neared the top.
“He’s sleepwalking,” whispered Anthony.
“What’s the right thing to do with a sleepwalking bastard?” said Robert.
“Hang on,” said Anthony, “I’ll Google it.”
“What does it say?”
“There’s nothing about sleepwalking bastards.”
“Try something else.”
“I don’t suppose there’s an entry for sleepwalking c…..?”
“No. The advice is not to wake the sleepwalker.”
“Right, let’s rouse the git,” said Robert.
“It says you can talk to them. They might respond with nonsense.”
“He won’t find that difficult.”
“Try talking to him.”
“What art thou that usurps’t this time of night?”
“He won’t understand that. This is Strickland. He plays rugby, beats people up and abuses Year Sevens. He’s never read a book in his life.”
“Hey, Strickland,” said Robert, “I’m Lederer. Fancy a scrap?”
“Who put itching powder in my jock strap?” said Strickland.
“Did you do that?” said Anthony.
“I wish I had.”
Strickland began scratching his scrotum.
“Stop that you dirty boy,” said Robert. “You’ll get a penance.”
“I have to get to my private lesson,” said Strickland.
“You’re dressed for it, if it’s with Molloy-Livingstone,” said Robert.
“Are your sins mortal or venial?” said Anthony.
“Forgive me for I have missed a penalty kick,” said Strickland.
“Can that be remedied?” said Robert.
“Perdition,” said Anthony.
“Shall I shove him down the stairs?”
“That could be murder.”
“His soul is lost for sins against the rules of rugby union. What good is his body?”
At this precise point, the somnambulist’s penis began to stir.
“Shite, he’s getting a hard on,” said Robert.
“Masturbatjon is a mortal sin, Strickland,” said Anthony. “You will need contrition, disclosure and satisfaction.”
“I’m out of here before satisfaction,” said Robert.
“What favours shall I do today, sir?” said Strickland.
“Get thee to a nunnery,” said Robert.
“A nunnery?” said Strickland with a smile and his erection stood firm.
“Molloy-Livingstone has taught him well,” said Robert.
“This way,” said Anthony, “down the stairs.”
They coaxed him to the dwarf door, shoved him through and sent him along the path leading to the main gate.
“Do you think he’ll find his way?” said Anthony.
“His compass is set in the right direction. Come on. It’s chilly. Get the bikes.”
Anthony’s calculation was they could cover the twenty six miles in two hours. It was easy to get their bikes and by four thirty a.m. they were free of the grounds without disturbing a soul. The only encumbrance was Rob’s guitar.
“A backpack each. I told you,” Tony said.
The backpack and guitar were awkward and Rob had to stop every few miles to adjust his burden.
“You should’ve learnt the harmonica,” said Tony.
“I can play that too,” said Rob. “Are you sure this is the right way?”
“’Course I am.”
The lanes were almost deserted. Every twenty minutes a van or car passed. Inevitably, the driver was interested in two kids pedalling in the middle of the night and nowhere.
“They’ve spotted us. They’ll tell the police,” said Rob when they stopped to swig water.
“Doesn’t matter. We’ll be long gone by then.”
Two hours proved almost exact. They arrived in the centre of York shortly after six. The city was rubbing the sleep from its eyes. There were few people on the streets and most shops, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, bars and offices were closed. They hid the bikes behind a garage and themselves in bushes by the Ouse. Once commerce began its daily rhythm, Tony found a chemist’s, bought a pair of scissors, some shaving foam and a packet of five plastic razors.
“I’ll do you first,” he said.
Rob’s hair was thick. Anthony sawed away with the little shears.
“God, that hurts.”
“Shut up. I’ll be finished in a minute.”
Once his mate was cropped he oozed a generous layer of the white foam onto his tufty scalp and began to pull the razor across his pate in long sweeps from back to front.
“Ssh. It won’t kill you.”
There were little nicks here and there which he staunched with bits of tissue.
“Now your turn.”
“Grit your teeth,” said Rob.
“I’m not a cissy.”
They had enough for train tickets but two shaven-headed teenagers, one with a guitar as conspicuous as a giraffe’s neck on his back were going to be noticed.
“Lorries,” said Tony.
“The driver will report us.”
“Not if he doesn’t know we’re missing.”
“Everyone will know.”
“Not if they’re foreign.”
“Oh, that’s going to be easy.”
“Haven’t you noticed, when you’ve been on the motorway, lorries with foreign plates? There must be hundreds. We just have to find one going to Manchester.”
“Yeah, let’s find a blue sheep while we’re at it.”
“It’ll be easy. Seventy miles on the M62 and were home and dry.”
“Or on the streets of Salford and pissed wet through.”
Tony’s idea was they should split up. The police would be looking for a pair. They’d have descriptions and they’d be expecting bikes. A lad with a shaved head, on his own and with no bike wouldn’t spark up immediate suspicion. He got the street map up on his phone.
“See. This is where we’ll meet. This is the route. It’s a couple of miles. Who’s going first?”
“Toss for it.”
It was heads.
“Got the route on your phone?” said Tony.
“Okay. Straight there. Talk to no one. I’ll give you fifteen minutes.”
Rob walked quickly, mostly to quell his nervousness. He would have preferred them to go together. Together they were okay. Tony’s idea was mad, he was sure. They’d be caught. No doubt. They’d be sent back to Clapforth in disgrace, but at least they’d’ve had a few days’ freedom. His parents would go skinless but at least he’d have the chance to tell them. He knew Tony believed they could make it. Somehow they’d set up a life for themselves without parents or teachers. They’d never be caught and they’d reveal themselves when they chose. He thought it hopeless. There were cameras everywhere. Police everywhere. It would be on the telly. If they managed a week they’d be lucky.
Tony worried that if someone challenged Rob he would give in. It was only a couple of miles. They’d soon be together and he could reassure him. He was responsible because he’d persuaded his friend. He had to make it work. He knew Rob had little faith and had come along thinking it would be a few days out of school. A short taste of freedom; but Tony wasn’t interested in going back in humiliation, the guilty party, forced to conform. He wasn’t guilty and he wouldn’t conform.
His dread, as he set off, was that Rob wouldn’t be there. Maybe the police would have picked him up. The guitar was a flag. He tried to persuade him to leave it behind. They could pick up another; but it was part of him. He could no more discard it than he could have abandoned one of his legs. If he was challenged, Rob would confess. Tony had his story. If a police car pulled up and a six feet six officer emerged and looked down at him with knowing suspicion, if he was asked his name, where he lived and where he was going, he had it all pat:
“Morning, son. Where you off to?”
“To the shop.”
“Bit early for shopping isn’t it?”
“For my mum. She’s disabled.”
“Where’d you live?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your mum’s name?”
“I might’ve worked that out myself. Given name.”
The copper would turn to his mate in the car:
“Check that will you, Jason? Heaton, Fiona, thirteen Fairfax Street. What’s on your shopping list then, lad?”
“Tea bags, cat food and croissants.”
“Croissants. They for you, are they?”
“Your mother fond of ‘em, then?”
“Well, the cat isn’t.”
“Got any brothers or sisters?”
“What about your dad?”
“I haven’t got a dad.”
“Everybody has a dad, son. Unless you mother’s was a virgin birth.”
“Divorced are they?”
The officer in the car would nod in affirmation. Tony was no idiot. It was easy to find who lived at a particular address on the internet.
“Where’d you go to school?”
“Like fruit gums, then do you?”
“No, I prefer fruit pastilles.”
“What’s your favourite subject?”
“What’s you teacher called?”
“No, just Shrek.”
“Why d’you call him that?”
“’Cause he looks like him.”
There would be an urgent message over the radio. He would have to slide back into the driver’s seat, his impossible legs cramped under the dashboard.
A police car came towards him. He didn’t look. He kept on walking as if he belonged, as if he’d walked this street thousands of times, as if York was as familiar to him as his bedroom. Would they cast a glance his way? Would they slow down? Was there anything about him which would make them associate him with the now notorious abscondees from one of the most prestigious schools on the planet?
They passed. He flicked his head to look over his shoulder. They disappeared round the bend. His confidence leapt like a salmon in spring. They hadn’t even noticed him. Every police force in the country must by now have his and Rob’s descriptions. They must be on the lookout. Every bobby from Bournemouth to Bishopbriggs would be trying to spot a pair of posh boys looking shifty or lost; but who would be suspicious of a teenager with a shaven head, on his own who looked as if he was as at home as a wren in a hedge?
Rob was waiting.
“Look, that’s foreign,” said Tony pointing to an articulated monster with red lettering in an incomprehensible tongue on its white side.
“What language is that?”
“Czech, I think.”
“How are we going to speak to the driver?”
“All we have to say is Manchester.”
“What if he isn’t going there?”
“Someone will be.”
“We might have to wait for days.”
“Be confident, Rob. We can make our own luck.”
“Here,” Tony took a cereal bar from his pocket.
“Is that my breakfast?”
“We could go in there and have a full English,” said Tony, “but it might attract a little bit of the wrong attention.”
“What are we going to eat when our meagre supplies run out? Nuts and berries?”
“We can raid supermarket bins. I’ve read about it on the internet. They throw away food Buckingham Palace wouldn’t refuse.”
“I bet the Queen doesn’t have a cereal bar for breakfast.”
“She might have porridge. Not much difference.”
“I suppose you’ve got caviar in your pocket for lunch.”
“We’ll be eating lunch in Manchester.”
The driver approached his lorry. He wiped the back of hand across his mouth, no doubt relishing the bacon, eggs, tomatoes, black pudding, sausages, fried bread, mushrooms, hash browns and sweet tea he’d just scoffed. He was a thin man with a face which reminded Rob of a vole. He wore jeans and a heavy, blue and grey checked shirt whose sleeves were folded back to half way between his wrist and his elbow, revealing the thick, black hair of his forearms. His legs were slightly bandy which at once made Tony think of Kevin Lederer. On his feet, instead of the clumping, workman’s boots which might be expected, he wore smart, black Rockports with tapered toes.
“Here we go,” said Tony.
They caught up with the driver as he was about to climb into his cab.
“’Scuse me,” called Tony. “Are you going to Manchester?”
Turning to look and then stepping down, the man smiled and shook his head.
“Manchester,” said Tony with great deliberation. “We need to get to Manchester.”
“Manchester,” said the foreigner nodding.
He pointed to his cab and went on bobbing his head. The rigid index shifted, first to Tony, secondly to Rob. The driver turned down the corners of his mouth and indicated negativity. Tony jabbed his own index into his chest before turning it to point at his friend.
“No trouble,” he said. “We won’t be any trouble. We won’t even talk,” he said setting his finger to his pursed lips.
The frowning Czech continued to shake his head.
“Look,” said Tony, grabbing the neck of Rob’s guitar, “we’ve got to get to Manchester.”
He played air guitar and mimed. The middle European frowned and stood watching. Tony stopped, spread his hands and nodded.
“You see. He’s a performer. He’s got to get there,” and he indicated his wrist as if he wore a watch.
Nimbly, with the ease of someone doing what they’ve done thousands of times, the trucker climbed into the high cab and closed the door. His window descended. He looked down at the two boys, smiled and gave a wave before sparking the heavy engine.
“I told you,” said Rob. “He doesn’t understand a word. It’s pants. Let’s get the bikes.”
“Defeatist,” said Tony.
He positioned himself in front of the cab so the driver could see him but couldn’t pull forward, his hands joined, Durer-like, in the supplication of prayer. The bloke at the wheel, who had work to do and was eager to get started, shook his head some more.
“Climb in the other side,” Tony shouted to Rob.
“Climb in the cab by the other door.”
“He’ll go mad.”
“No, he won’t. He’s a nice bloke.”
“How do you know? He might be a Transylvanian axe-murderer.”
“Just climb in, Rob.”
The smaller lad nipped in front of his mate, cursing as he went. The step was high. The handle beyond his reach. He hitched his right foot up and tried to force himself to a standing position but the weight on his back made him fall back.
“It’s bloody impossible,” he called. “I need a ladder or a trampoline to get up there.”
“Take the stuff off your back.”
“I’m not leaving it behind.”
Kafka’s countryman was gunning the motor and flicking his hand like a table tennis bat or as if he was trying to swat away a wasp.
“You won’t have to. Just drop it and climb in.”
“I must be insane.”
“We’ll find a psychiatrist. Go on.”
It was a tussle but he yanked himself onto the little, white, metal footboard which let him grab the handle and pull open the door. The haulier turned to him, his head shaking:
“No, no,” he said.
“Sorry. Sorry,” said Rob. “It’s my mate, he’ s a bit wrong in the head,” and he twirled his finger by his temple in the classic dumb show.
In an instant, his bag was tossed in beside him, his guitar shoved into his hands and Tony clambered aboard pulling the slow door tight with a straight-from-the-factory clunk. He smiled broadly at the Czech, nodded vigorously and holding his hands out in front of him, his palms upwards indicated it was time to set off, as if they were a family packed into the car for the annual through-the-night drive to Newquay or St Ives. The driver looked at the diminutive pair with the fixed frown on his face.
“He’s going to kick us out,” said Rob.
“He’s probably got kids of his own,” said Tony, still smiling.
The engine roared. The man from Prague or Brno or wherever he lived shook his head a final time before his face cleared like a sky rid of clouds by a strong sea breeze and he let out a great, irreverent laugh which Tony at once joined in with.
“What you laughing at?” said Rob.
“Who cares, just laugh.”
The three of them chuckling as if at some rug-pulling joke, the great, white, heavy lorry crawled slowly away heading for Manchester carrying two cargoes, one legitimate and inanimate, the other illicit and full of life and promise.
“This is better than Geog with Keighley,” said Tony as they glided along the inside lane at a steady sixty. “What a great view you get from up here.”
“Yeah, better than the view we’ll get from our prison cells.”
“We haven’t broken any law.”
“Oh, sorry Mr Cass QC, sir. I bet he’s not insured to have us in his cab.”
“People hitch-hike all the time.”
“People get murdered all the time but I’d rather avoid it.”
“It’ll be fine. He’s a good driver.”
They stopped at Birch Services.
“He’s going to kick us out,” said Rob.
“No, he won’t. We’ll buy him a coffee.”
“Yes, buy him a three course meal and an overnight stay. Ring your dad and ask him to pay.”
“Coffee. Coffee,” said Anthony, miming drinking.
“Coffee,” said the man of the road, nodding and holding up three fingers.
“See,” said Tony, “he just wants a coffee and the toilet.”
“Maybe he wants a coffee, the toilet and a copper.”
Despite Tony’s protests, the adult paid. He bought them a coffee and a portion of fries each.
“Enjoy ‘em,” said Rob, “they may be the last fries you eat in your life.”
“Don’t be melodramatic. We’ve done okay so far, haven’t we?”
“So far? We haven’t even got to Manchester yet. Supposing someone in here spots us.”
“With him?” said Anthony, pointing to their host. “He gives us cover. He might be our dad.”
“He doesn’t look anything like us.”
“Genes are funny things.”
“I don’t look anything like you.”
“Maybe we had different fathers.”
“I thought you said he was our father.”
“Different mothers, then.”
“I hope he doesn’t understand. You’ve just accused him of fathering children on various women. He might be a Catholic.”
“Catholics have sperm, don’t they?
“I don’t know if the Pope has made a ruling.”
Their temporary provider took his mobile from his shirt pocket and brought up a picture. It depicted a woman of about fifty, dark haired, motherly, with a wide smile on her charming but not good-looking face.
“That must be his wife,” said Rob.
Tony pointed to the woman, to their transporter and then to the gold ring on his left hand.
“Your wife,” he said. “Your wife.”
His dumb interlocutor nodded happily, an expression of proud contentment permeating his features.
“What’s her name?” said Tony.
“He’s no idea what you’re saying,” said Rob.
“We’ll teach him a bit of English.”
“Oh yes, we’re teachers all of sudden.”
“Anyone can do that. You don’t have to be a teacher.”
He indicated himself and enunciated Tony as if he were addressing a slow-learning kangaroo.
“Me. Tony. Tony. Your wife. What’s her name? Her name? Tony. Me. Rob. Him.”
The chauffeur repeated Tony.
“That’s right. Your wife. What’s she called?”
“Brigita,” said the pupil, nodding and smiling.
“See,” said Tony. “Brigita. He understood. I told you.”
“Brilliant, we’ll be talking about Janacek with him in an hour.”
“We have to start somewhere.”
“See if you can make him understand we’re on the run and need to stay away from the police.”
“What’s your name,” said Tony, stretching both his indexes and jabbing them in the air towards his interlocutor’s chest.
“He’s Marek and his wife is Brigita. I told you it would be easy.”
“Don’t you think we should get going or are you intending to introduce common English suffixes before we head off?”
More pictures were swiped: children, a bride and groom, a wedding party, an old, wrinkled woman with a wary smile in an armchair, a big dog whose breed neither Tony nor Rob could identify, a little house in its own, petty, untidy grounds, a chestnut horse looking over a wooden fence, a young man in football kit, a woman with a baby in her arms.
“We’ll be able to find out all about him,” said Anthony.
“Maybe he’ll take us back with him,” said Rob, “we could set up a language school in Prague. I’m sure there are no end of Czechs wanting to learn how to tell absconding schoolboys about their wives and cousins.”
For the remainder of the journey, Tony kept up his lesson. He managed to make Marek understand he wanted to exchange words and picked up the Czech for “hello”, “goodbye”, “please” and “thank you.”
“We’re all set if we ever land in the Czech republic,” said Rob.
“If we stay in touch with him, we might.”
“Do you know,” said Rob, “I completely forgot to bring my passport.”
Tony gave Marek his number and entered Marek’s into his phone. When they shook his hand and climbed down from the cab, he made him understand he would text him. Marek nodded, smiled and said something in Czech which Tony assumed must be a good wish. They waved as the lumbering lorry pulled away leaving them in sight of the Etihad, the kindly Marek having made a detour to drop them not too far from the city centre.
“Where the hell are we?” said Rob.
“It’s not far into the city.”
“I suppose there’ll be a Bulgarian van driver along any minute and we can teach him the continuous present while he shows us pictures of his ancestors.”
“We can walk.”
“Couple of miles.”
“Doesn’t it occur to you we’re somewhat conspicuous?”
“That guitar is. I told you to leave it behind. We could have got another.”
“You are no musician, Tony. There isn’t another like this one. It’s like a mother, you only have one. Replacements and additions aren’t the same.”
“We’ll walk on opposite sides of the road. I’ll go first, you follow at a bit of distance.”
“Fine. Where exactly are we going?”
“We’ll get into the city and then think things through.”
“Yeah, maybe you could think through where we’re going to sleep tonight.”
“We’ve got enough to pay for a hotel room if need be.”
“Ah, lovely. Is there a Hilton in Manchester?”
“As a matter of fact there is.”
“Perfect, we’ll have the penthouse suite.”
“Cross the road and follow me.”
Rob had never been to Manchester but Tony was familiar with the centre. They sat in St Ann’s Square listening to a busker, a man of forty with a bald head and a black beard, strumming chords and singing pop songs.
“What do you think?” said Tony.
“People are giving him money, though.”
“People pay good money for all kinds of cacophony.”
“Maybe they’d give you money.”
“Maybe the police’d spot me.”
“I’ll keep watch.”
“So I pack up and run for it when the bobby appears. That’s not going to make ‘em suspicious, is it?”
“You could try it, anyway. Look, there’s another woman giving him money.”
“Maybe they pity him.”
“Because he has to busk for a living?”
“Because he can’t play the guitar.”
They moved to the Cathedral triangle where there was a decent crowd. It was a fine day and the sun on the buildings spread a softening charm. A few drinkers were taking life easy over a glass outside Sinclair’s Oyster Bar.
“A ready-made audience,” said Anthony.
At the bottom of the steps, Rob took his guitar from its case and tuned up.
“No one’ll hear me without amplification.”
“Get as close as you can.”
“What d’you want me to do, sit at their tables?”
“You can play standing up and walking round, I’ve seen you.”
“I might get a punch on the nose.”
“Go on. Play for half an hour then I’ll go round with the hat.”
“We haven’t got a hat.”
With his instrument suspended from his shoulders and the strings under his fingers, Rob felt a portion of his alienation seep away. He walked among the tables harmonizing chords and picking out little riffs he’d learnt or invented. People were friendly. They smiled. A man with a big beard, a pot belly and heavy black glasses offered him a fiver. He looked towards Tony who nodded. The note went in his back pocket.
Tony went among the punters with a trainer.
“Thank you. Thank you. Any spare change for the musician?”
Pound coins, fifty pences, a few twenties and tens. The shoe filled up. People, Tony thought, are imitative. One person puts in a coin, everybody feels obliged. The pot-belly with the beard beckoned him.
“Why aren’t you two in school?” he said.
“Training day,” said Tony. “For the teachers. They have them, you know, now and again.”
“Which school?” said the beard, lifting his pint.
The man stared at him.
“Chetham’s,” said Tony in an instant of inspiration.
“They don’t have training days at Chetham’s.”
“Well, they said it was a training day.”
“Where you from?”
“From? Salford,” said Tony in another inspirational moment.
“You grow up in Salford?”
“You don’t sound like it.”
“No, you sound like you come from mid-Lancashire, poshed up a bit by education.”
Tony was amazed.
“No, no, Salford, born and bred.”
“Which part? The middle. Yes, right in the middle.”
“I think you’re skiving,” said the belly, swigging.
“Skiving, us. Not us. We’re hard-working pupils.”
“Run away from home?”
“Bad things going on?”
“Bad things? No, my dad’s a lawyer. He runs his own firm. Probate. And my mum’s a teacher.”
“Where’s your mate from?”
“No he isn’t. I’d say he’s from Bedford or St Albans. Somewhere in that region.”
“St Albans? No. Never been there in his life.”
“He should go, he’d hear lots of accents like his own.”
He signalled to Rob who’d been hanging back by the steps and who came forward unwillingly.
“Where you from?” said the glasses.
“Bedford,” said Rob.
“Slip of the tongue,” said Anthony. “Bolton. Never left the place.”
“Yeah,” said Rob.
“No,” said Tony.
The drinker laughed and his belly trembled like a vole in the snow.
“I don’t live far away. Come on, I’ll feed you and you can tell me the truth. Don’t worry, I won’t call the police or your folks unless you want me to. I’m an anarchist.”
“No thanks,” said Tony.
“Quite right. Never go with strangers. Okay, what d’ you like to eat? Burger and fries and that kind of crap?”
“Yeah,” said Rob.
“Right, lunch is on me.”
They sat in the inevitable outlet where the boys gorged on the cheap, eat-it-with-your-fingers food which brought more comfort than satisfaction.
“My guess is you’re from some private school,” said the anarchist.
“Chetam’s is private,” said Anthony.
“What instrument d’you play?”
“Not got it with you?”
“It’s Rob’s turn today.”
“How much does the upper register key raise a note?”
“An octave,” said Rob.
“Good try,” said the big man. “Why don’t you come clean. I’m not going to tell anyone.”
“Clapforth,” said Rob.
Tony dug his elbow in his ribs.
“That’s posh. Had enough?”
“He has,” said Rob.
“You just keeping him company.”
“He persuaded me. I must be mad.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Private lessons,” said Rob.
“I see. Priests and choirboy stuff.”
“Yeah,” said Rob.
“Don’t blame you, then. We’re you heading for?”
“Here,” said Rob.
“Somewhere to stay?”
“We made seven pound thirty-nine in half an hour from the busking.”
“Not so much of the we,” said Rob.
“ That’s not bad. Nearly fifteen pounds an hour. If we could do that for three or four hours a day, we’d be okay. And weekends will be better.”
“Yeah. But I gave you a fiver.”
“I know,” said Tony.
The anarchist took his keys from his pocket, a big bunch suspended from a brass fob on which was inscribed Do the police a favour, beat yourself up.
“This is the key to my front door,” he said. “It’s in Hall Street, off Oxford Road. The number’s on it. Take it. Go and have a look. You want a place to lay your heads for a night or two, it’s up to you. I’ll wait outside Sinclair’s.”
The runaways looked at one another.
“Okay,” said Rob taking the keys, “we’ll be quick.”
“Take your time. The longer you are, the more I can drink.”
They passed the Royal Exchange at a swift pace.
“He might follow us,” said Anthony, looking behind.
“He’d never keep up. His belly must weigh forty kilos.”
“We’ll have to be careful. It could be a trap.”
“Someone might be waiting for us. He messages them, we’re nabbed.”
In front of the town hall they paused for breath.
“Maybe we should just dump the keys in a bin and run for it,” said Rob.
“We’ll ring the bell or knock on the door. If anyone answers, we sprint. If there’s no one in, we’ll have a quick look.”
It was a town house, it’s front door directly on the street. Tony rang the bell. They waited. He rang again. They loitered. Rob knocked hard then bent to the letter box, pushed it open and called, “Anybody in there?”
“Let’s try it,” said Tony.
He slipped the key into the Yale. The door opened easily, in spite of its solid wood weight. They stepped into a hallway piled with books. There were shelves to the left, packed from one end to the other and on top, precarious towers of jumbled hardbacks and paperbacks. On the right, by the stairs, were stacks from the floor to the banister. Each tread of the stairs had its little hoard. The dividing wall was dominated by a huge painting depicting a crowd crossing a bridge, banners carried on high reading WAR IS THE HEALTH OF THE STATE, SACK YOUR BOSS, WHEN MONEY TALKS, POVERTY ANSWERS BACK.
“It’s like the Tardis,” said Rob as they ventured into the living-room, the dining-room, the kitchen.
There were books on every available surface. In the living room was a sofa long enough for an anaconda, and two armchairs, both occupied by resting volumes. The dining table was a mess of papers, magazines, open tomes face down, their spines straining. There were books on top of the microwave, in the vegetable rack, on the work surfaces, on the fridge.
“Open it,” said Rob, “I bet you’ll find the complete works of Shakespeare.”
Upstairs was no different. The main bedroom was shrunk by shelves stacked two rows deep and jammed to the ceiling. By the bed were half a dozen high rises. The other bedrooms had books on the floor, filling the alcoves, on the window sills. The toilet cistern supported a bulk of magazines and dusty titles adorned the bathroom cabinet.
Their astonishment at the library crammed into a house was equalled by their amazement at the cornucopia of paintings. There was barely a visible inch of wallpaper. Colour, form and startling images were everywhere. On the living room wall was a two metre by two metre portrait of Beethoven, wild-haired and fierce across which was scrawled in red ES MUSS SEIN. In one of the alcoves of the dining-room was a collection of thousands of CDs Rob couldn’t resist exploring.
“Charlie Christian,” he said.
“No idea. Let’s listen to it.”
“We’d better get his keys back to him,” said Tony.
“This might be good. It says he’s a major jazz guitarist.”
“Yeah, but we’ve got a decision to make.”
“What?” said Rob, distracted by his fascination.
“Are we going to stay the night here?”
“If we can fit in among the books.”
“He’s some kind of weirdo.”
“Yeah, but it’s better than the street.”
“We’ve got enough for a hotel.”
“Why not save it?”
“You know what’s missing from this house?”
“What?” said Rob trying to work out how to use the CD player.
Rob looked up.
“Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“What kind of person has no television?”
“He hasn’t got time. I’m surprised he’s got time to eat with all this stuff to read.”
“I wonder if he lives alone,” said Tony.
“He doesn’t,” said Rob, “ he lives with a library.”
The music kicked off. Rob read the title: Swing To Bop. He stood still and listened.
“Switch it off,” said Tony, “we’d better get back.”
Just a second. Rob disappeared to the hallway and came back with his guitar.
“What you doin’?”
“I’m just going to see if I can play this. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
“We haven’t got time for that.”
“Why not? He said the longer we are the more he can drink. Let him drink.”
Tony turned off the music and Rob picked away at the impossible riffs.
“What are we going to do?” said Tony.
“I say we stay.”
“For a night?”
“Till I can play this music,” said Rob.
“What’s more serious than music?”
“The question is, do you think he’s dangerous?”
“To himself,” said Rob, pausing, “ he’s killing himself with booze. I don’t think he’ll do us any harm. Anyway, there are two of us and he’s fat, unfit and about fifty.”
Into Tony’s head sprang the image of Kevin Lederer whacking Strickland on the nose. He wondered if he could do the same, if he had to. Would he be able to jab a punch as quick and effective? Lederer was a tennis player. He had a natural quickness in his arm. Tony wasn’t sure he could emulate him, but Rob was right, there were two of them and together, if they were forced, they could put up a good struggle.
“Okay, we stay one night. Any funny stuff and we get out fast.”
“Sure,” said Rob, twanging.
“Come on then.”
Rob put his guitar in its case and slung it on his back.
“We can leave our stuff,” said Tony.
“I’m not leaving my guitar.”
“We’ll be coming back.”
“Who knows who might come here in the meantime. I’m not leaving it.”
They found the fat man in the sunshine outside Sinclair’s, his pint glass half full.
“Find it okay?”
“Yes,” said Tony.
“What d’you think?”
“We’ll stay for one night.”
“Fine. One thing,” said the belly, “I think you should tell your parents.”
The boys exchanged glances.
“They’d come for us. They’d send us back.”
“You don’t have to tell ‘em where you are. Just that you’re safe and not on the street. Send a card.”
“We can text.”
“Police’ll trace that in seconds. Tomorrow I’m in Newcastle. Write a note, I’ll post it from there. Put ‘em off the scent.”
“Maybe,” said Tony.
They cleared of books the bed in the smallest room. Their host dug out an inflatable mattress and they tossed a coin for who would get which. Tony fell asleep stretched full length while Rob picked away at what he could remember of the guitar music. It was six when he heard the call from below:
“Hey, you two. Come and give me a hand in the kitchen.”
Tony rubbed his eyes. Rob reluctantly set his instrument aside.
On the work surface, the chef had assembled his ingredients: misshapen sweet potato, lushly green, fresh coriander, garam masala, curry powder, turmeric, fat cloves of garlic, red onions as round as cricket balls, long, unwashed carrots sporting their green leaves, thick- stemmed broccoli, red lentils, kidney beans, cannelloni beans, potatoes the size of pebbles, enormous, squat, beef tomatoes, rice.
“Vegetable curry. What d’you think? he said, sipping his sparkling, white wine.
“Yeah,” said Rob, thinking of his guitar.
“I like curry,” said Tony.
“Isn’t about time we introduced ourselves? I’m Julian.”
The boys divulged their names before being allocated little sous-chef jobs. Rob had to peel the lumpy sweet potato, a task he’d never have had to do at home where his mother commanded the kitchen, while Tony set to work on the onions.
“What’s the difference between a banjo and an onion?” said Julian.
“I don’t know.”
“Nobody cries when you cut up a banjo. That a jazzo’s joke.”
“I listened to some of your jazz,” said Rob.
“Yeah? What was that?”
“Ah, great. Let’s put some on.”
The kitchen filled with the sound of the jazzman’s rills, the subtle rhythms of Dave Tough and the startling piano of Count Basie.
“Sick,” said Rob.
“You’re not a bad player. You could learn this kind of stuff.”
“Yeah, well, I tried to pick out the one I listened to, Swing To Bop. I can’t even keep it in my head.”
“Well, it’s not pop music. You have to work at it.”
“Do you play?”
“No, I’m a poet, but I know people who do.”
A poet? So that explained all the books. Tony had never thought of poets as people who lived like everyone else, who had kitchens, and bathrooms and carpets which needed vacuuming. Somehow, they’d always belonged in a different realm. When he thought of poetry he imagined Shakespeare or Wordsworth, not a fat man with a big beard who drank pints of larger outside Sinclair’s in the middle of the day and chopped vegetables in his untidy kitchen in the evening.
His mother would have been appalled at the disarray. At home there was a cupboard or a drawer for everything. You could walk into their kitchen and imagine no cooking ever took place there, as you could peep into the bedrooms and believe the beds were never occupied; but this was a house which showed all the signs of the life that went on in it. It wasn’t a house to show off to the neighbours. There were steamers, saucepans, frying pans, cooling racks, baking tins, mixing bowls, serving plates, and bottles of brandy, whisky, gin, vodka, kahlua, port, sherry, and liqueurs filling the tops of cupboards. The window sill supported potted parsley, chives, rosemary, a sapling bay tree, a bowl of tomatoes, cleaning cloths, pan scrubs, washing up liquid, milk pans, a couple of spatulas and a colander. On the work-surfaces were jars of ground ginger, cumin, fenugreek seeds, mustards seeds, fennel seeds, cinnamon, mace, star anise, cardamon pods, chilli powder, basil, coriander seeds, ras el hanut, oregano, paprika, mixed herbs, black pepper, cayenne pepper, all spice, dill, salt; bottles of olive oil, sunflower oil, white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, tomato ketchup, packets of flour, oats, coffee, brown rice, basmati rice, pudding rice, quinoa, light brown sugar, muscovado, granulated white, yeast, oatcakes, English breakfast tea, Earl Grey tea, decaffeinated tea, chicken stock, beef stock, vegetable stock.
Everywhere in this house brimmed and tidiness seemed of little importance. At home order was the ruling principle. Nothing was to be left out. Tea bags were in a caddy not a packet and the caddy had its allotted place on the shelf, as if god had determined before the universe was born that it should perch there. It was difficult to understand why his parents, his dad in particular, were so fussy about neatness, as if anything out of place was a moral fault. Julian lived as he needed to. The disorder of his house exuded contentment. This was how he wanted to live. Why shouldn’t he?
“This must be the untidiest house in Europe,” said Tony when he and Rob were settling for the night.
“Yeah, when the government sets up OFDOM, he’s had it.”
“They’d never do that.”
“Don’t be so sure. It’s the next step. Inspectors arriving at your front door to check all your spices are in alphabetical order, your carpets spick, no dust on your light shades, your toilet bowl fit to eat your dinner off and as for what goes on in your bedroom, there’ll be a tick-box sheet and if you fail a target, that’s your love-life over.”
“Anyway, he lives alone.”
In the morning they discovered he didn’t sleep alone.
“This is my girlfriend, Holly,” he said, introducing a visitor not more than five years older then them.
Holly was at breakfast for the following two mornings, then they were introduced to Ellie.
“This is my girlfriend, Ellie,” said Julian.
Ellie stayed only one night.
“This is my girlfriend, Natalie,” said Julian.
Natalie was long-term. She was there three mornings in a row.
“This is my girlfriend, Summer,” said Julian.
“How old do you think she is?” said Rob when he and Tony were alone.
“Sixteen, I suppose,” said Tony.
“She could be fifteen.”
Summer’s lease had all too short a date.
“This is my girlfriend, Maya,” said Julian.
“They’re all pretty, aren’t they?” said Rob.
“Very,” said Tony.
“That Maya is fit.”
“Very,” said Tony.
“This is my girlfriend, Sophie,” said Julian.
“She’s not so pretty,” said Rob.
“His standards are falling,” said Tony.
Sophie stayed almost a week.
“Maybe he’ll have a celebration,” said Rob.
“Yeah,” said Tony, “there’ll be cards on the mantlepiece and a cake.”
“This is my girlfriend, Molly” said Julian.
“She must be twenty at least,” said Rob.
“He’s developed a taste for older women.”
His deviation proved temporary. Molly was gone in a day.
“This is my girlfriend, Carol,” said Julian.
After breakfast, Carol appeared in her school uniform.
“She’s in Year 13,” said Julian.
“He should have left out “in Year”” said Rob.
“This is my girlfriend, Lucy,” said Julian.
Lucy might have been even older than Molly.
“What are you boys doing today,” she said, munching rye bread and marmalade.
“He’s busking, I’m watching for the police,” said Tony.
“You’re very naughty, aren’t you?”
She had a big smile which had something professional about it and a deep, slow languorous voice.
“Not as naughty as what we’ve run away from,” said Rob.
“No, I suppose not. Still, it’s a big adventure for boys of your age. I was very obedient when I was at school, but I’ve made up for it since,” and she laughed in a way that shook her whole body her face full of sunny amusement.
“What do you do?” said Tony, unable to restrain his curiosity.
“I’m an actor, sweetheart,” she said. “I’ve been on the telly. Twice. I’m a theatre actor.”
“That’s interesting,” said Rob, “I think Carol was studying drama.”
“Who, my dear?” she said.
“Carol, Julian’s girlfriend. Or one of his girlfriends.”
She became almost imperceptibly more serious.
“Carol. Studying drama. At the university?”
“Oh no,” said Rob, “in school.”
“Ah, I see, a schoolgirl.” She paused. “Does she stay here often?”
Tony was looking at Rob with raised eyebrows.
“No, she was the one before you, and after Molly, who was a bit older, I mean when I say a bit older, probably twenty-one, and before her was Sophie and I think Maya, was it Tony?”
His friend’s eyebrows were seen too late. Lucy left her toast and tea and charged up the stairs. Seconds later there was the noise of a kerfuffle followed by the elephantine thumping of their host coming down as quickly as his bulk and age would permit. Lucy pursued him into the kitchen.
“You bastard,” she shouted, picking up her plate with the half-eaten bread and marmalade and whizzing it like a frisbee at his head.
He ducked and tried to open the back door, but the key was missing.
“Where the fuck’s the key?” he shouted.
“Watch your language in front of children, you fucking dirty bastard,” she called.
She grabbed a mug and flung it at him. He flinched and it smashed against the wall. Cups, saucers, pans, spoons, forks, knives, a salt cellar, the pan scrub, the washing up liquid, apples, oranges, grapes, spice bottles, bottles of booze, packets of sugar, oats, biscuits, coffee, a whisk, a spatula, a colander, pots of yogurt, pats of butter, glasses, goblets, hand wash, floor wipes, bin liners, a screwdriver, light bulbs, conditioner, dish cloths all flew through the air and either hit the parlous victim or crashed, splattered or flopped against the walls, the floor, the table, the windows, the cupboards.
“Get the fuck out of my house,” shouted Julian.
Tony and Rob, cowering beside the fridge, exchanged looks. Whether their host meant them or his attacker there was no time to reason. They flew to their room, stuffed their belongings in their backpacks and sped out of the front door.
“Where now?” said Rob.
“Oxford Road station.”
They pelted past Alliance Francaise, the bridge over the canal adorned with love’s padlocks, Sainsbury’s, up the slope to the station and panting, studied the departures.
“Blackpool,” said Tony.
“Big transient population, easy to hide.”
LOVE AT FIRST LUNACY
Tony bought the tickets, they bounded up the steps and down again to platform two just in time to squeeze on the crowded twin-carriage train. There were eight people standing in the jolting space between the compartments. Tony was trapped between the side and a man of six feet four in a smart, dark suit holding onto what seemed to be a shopping trolley. Rob was between a broad, hefty woman who had two young children with her and a bloke covered in tattoos, his face bearing twisting, coiling, fantastical creatures and his arms a blue mass of swirls in the middle of which was a heart and the name Tracey. The train rocked and bounced. They bumped, apologised, bumped again. The guard arrived to check the tickets. The tall man with the trolley displayed his mobile, the tattooed man pulled his from his pocket, but the mother searched her pockets, her bag, her other bag, her other other bag, her kids and finally, slipping her fingers inside her blouse produced the proof.
“I don’t know why I put them in there,” she said, “I sometimes do, when I’m in a hurry and I can’t find my bag, it’s handy, you know, you just slip them in; but then I forget, you see. You’ll be surprised what I’ve found in my bra.”
They rollicked along to Bolton, Lostock, Chorley, Buckshaw Village, Leyland, places as exotic to Rob as Port Vila. As they approached Preston he looked out over a park and a river.
“Let’s get off here,” he said.
“But it’s Preston,” said Tony.
“It looks nice. There’s a great park. Let’s go and explore.”
“But it’s Preston,” said Tony.
“Anyway, I’m sick of being crushed and bumped around like a parcel in a sorting office.”
“But it’s Preston,” said Tony.
“What’s wrong with Preston?” said Rob.
“I dunno. It’s just Preston.”
“Have you ever been here.”
“Well, let’s get off. If we don’t like it we can get another train.”
“You think we’re Bill Gates?”
“I’ll busk. It’s only a few quid.”
They passed the taxis lined up on the sloping entrance.
“How do we get to that park, I wonder?” said Rob.
“I didn’t even see it.”
“No, that woman’s cleavage was in the way. It must be over there,” said Rob, pointing. “Come on.”
Tony followed him, half a step laggardly. They turned right off Fishergate and found themselves in Winckley Square.
“This is nice,” said Rob, sitting on a chair in the central circle. “Very nice. A good place for busking.”
“But there’s hardly anybody here.”
“There are a few. I bet it gets busy at lunchtime.”
He was right. He sat for two hours, picking and strumming and the baseball cap Julian had bought in a charity shop filled with coins as almost everyone who passed reached into a pocket or a purse and dropped a vagrant coin.
“How generous people are,” said Rob, counting up.
The money was heavy in his backpack’s pocket.
“What a burden money is,” he said.
“We’ll have to change it for notes.”
“We can’t go into a bank.”
“We could try a little shop.”
“Even that’s risky. Better spend it.”
They discovered the entrance to the park and as they descended its steep slope, saw the bowl made by the curved wall of grass, the proliferation of trees, the pavilion by the lower path and the river beyond.
“Sick,” said Rob.
“It’s all right,” said Tony.
In the café where Rob paid for their juices with his earnings he asked the young woman if she could give him a note. He tipped the piles of coins onto the counter.
“ Nine pounds twenty-seven,” he said, but she insisted on addition.
“Nine pounds twenty-seven,” she said.
“That’s what I said,” he said.
“You were right,” she said.
“My mate’ll give you seventy-three pence then you can let me have a tenner.”
The transaction completed, Tony and Rob sat at a table by the window.
“She’s fit,” said Rob.
“She must be seventeen,” said Tony.
“I’m nearly fifteen.”
“You’re six months from fifteen.”
“That’s pretty near.”
“Girls of her age don’t go out with younger boys.”
“They just don’t. They have boyfriends of twenty with cars and a bit of money.”
“I’ve got a bit of money.”
“Nine pounds twenty-seven.”
“I could earn fifty quid a day if I busked for seven hours.”
“What if it rains?”
“I’ll get wet.”
“It’ll ruin your guitar.”
“I’ll keep my guitar dry.”
“Anyway, how can you ask her out? We don’t have a place to live.”
“What are you going to tell her? That we live on the park?”
“She might find it romantic.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a police car slowly coming down the path towards the river.
“Christ,” said Rob, “let’s run for it.”
“Don’t attract attention,” said Tony.
They sauntered nonchalantly past the counter, out of the door, onto the path by the Ribble, then ran as if a starting pistol had fired to the bridge, across it and to the seclusion of the old tram road.
“D’you think they spotted us?” said Rob, panting.
Tony shook his head.
Below the path was narrow patch of wooded land. They went down to it for concealment and followed the winding track for a few hundred yards. A man appeared tugging a sheep dog on a short leash.
“Excuse me,” said Rob, “where do we get to if we keep on along this path.”
“Factory Lane,” said the man, who was tall and stooping and had thick, grey eyebrows, “and that’ll take you to Leyland Road. Or of you keep straight ahead, you’ll come to Bamber Bridge.”
“What’s there?” said Rob.
“Not much. What you looking for?”
“Nothing in particular,” said Tony.
“Somewhere to busk,” said Rob.
“Are you lost?” said the man.
“Not exactly,” said Rob.
“No,” said Tony.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“We’re suspended,” said Tony.
“Oh dear,” said the man, whose voice was somewhat thin and cracking, “how did that happen?”
“He hit a teacher,” said Tony.
“No, I didn’t,” said Rob.
“Accidentally,” said Tony.
“Suspension seems a bit extreme for an accident,” said the man, taking his handkerchief from the pocket of his Barbour and wiping his long nose.
“Schools are every strict these days,” said Tony, “OFSTED you know. The places are crawling with inspectors. You can’t get away with even five minutes daydreaming in maths any more.”
“Which school do you go to?”
“Clapforth,” said Rob and the boys looked at one another in dismay.
“Clapforth? But you live in Preston, do you?”
“Oh, yes,” said Rob. “Born and bred. Lovely place. We adore it, don’t we Tony?”
“Can’t bear to be away.”
“Whereabouts do you live, then?”
“Whereabouts?” said Rob, “er, Bangor Bridge.”
“Bangor Bridge? Where’s that?”
“That’s Bamber Bridge.”
“That’s what I said,” said Rob, “Bamber Bridge. Yes, home. Better be getting back there. My mum will be wondering where I’ve got to.”
“Perhaps she’ll think you’re in Bangor Bridge,” said the elderly dog-walker with a tiny wry smile.
“No, no,” said Rob, “never go there. Can’t abide the place.”
“If you’re going to busk, the best place is probably Fishergate.”
“That’s where we’re heading,” said Rob.
“You’re going the wrong way.”
“We were just about to turn round when we met you, weren’t we, Tony.”
“Fishergate. That’s where we’re going.”
“Good. Better follow me, then,” and the man trudged as the dog strained on the lead and the boys, for want of any alternative, tagged behind.
Overlooking the park from its rear rooms, his house was enormous. Its front door opened directly onto the pavement of Ribblesdale Place. Neither Tony nor Rob, products of suburban space, lawns, hedges, drives, garages, conservatories, extensions, avenues, closes, groves, ways, cul-de-sacs, had imagined in the middle of a middle-sized town there could be houses so large, expansive and plush.
He offered them lunch which was served in the dining-room where they had a magnificent view of the park and the river. A woman of sixty, small, quick and grey brought the soup on a tray and set the china bowls in front of them and the plate of bread in the centre. She returned with the pork, potatoes, green beans, broccoli, and gravy, the apple pie and ice cream and a platter of cheese and biscuits.
“You were hungry,” said their host.
“Peckish,” said Tony.
“Skipped breakfast,” said Rob.
“I suppose your parents will be wondering about you.”
“No. Well, maybe. A bit,” said Rob. “Very liberal, our parents. But, maybe we should get going, Tony.”
“When you’ve finished busking, you can come back here for dinner if you like. You can meet my granddaughter.”
“Very kind,” said Rob.
His chosen spot was outside the Fishergate Centre, which, though it felt exposed, had a good throughput. Tony hung around on the opposite side of the road ready to signal the arrival of authority, at which Rob would skedaddle into the centre and hide in the public toilets. Two hours brought a hatful.
“What d’you think,” said Tony, “shall we accept the invitation to dinner?”
“Yeah,” said Rob, “that lunch was the best nosh I’ve had since Christmas.”
“Do you think the woman who served us was his wife?”
“If she was, why didn’t she eat with us?”
“A servant, then.”
“Servant? Do they still exist?”
“Well, housekeeper or whatever.”
“He’s loaded. I wonder how he made his money.”
“He must have a wife, or must have had one, or a partner. He said he’s got a granddaughter.”
“She might be fit.”
“He’s offering dinner, not a dating agency.”
“Maybe he’d let us spend the night.”
“He’s onto us.”
“I know. Let’s come clean and ask to sleep.”
“He’s respectable. He’ll go to the police.”
“If all respectable people went to the police, the prisons would burst.”
“Maybe he just wants to be kind.”
“It’s a comforting theory.”
“We’ll go back for the grub and then make ourselves scarce.”
“What about a bed?”
“The park should be okay. It’s not too cold.”
“It will be at two in the morning.”
“We can buy survival bags.”
“Let’s ask him.”
“Let’s see how it goes.”
How it went was Mr Alexander was a widowed, retired architect whose granddaughter lived with him because her parents (his son and daughter-in-law) were divorced, her mother worked in Dubai and her father had re-married to a woman she didn’t like. The dinner was as plentiful, well-cooked, elegantly presented and diligently served as the lunch. They were stuffed with beef, replete with greens, carrots, cauliflower, parsnips and mange tout, bloated with roast potatoes, crammed with tiramisu, pineapple upside down cake and raspberry sorbet, bursting with Wensleydale, camembert, crumbly Lancashire, boursin, brie, edam, port-salut, stilton, cheddar, red Leicester, and even, sop to their potentially childish tastes, La Vache Qui Rit. Yet if the banquet was splendid, the granddaughter was even more spectacular. While the food was the result of craft, she was a gift from nature.
Melissa was sixteen, slim, shapely, with a great mass of fine, brown hair which grew in thick profusion and fell to her shoulders. Her little face had blue eyes as big as saucers, a neat, short nose, arched brows, a Cupid’s bow Cupid himself would have bid for, a neatly pointed chin and soft white cheeks.
“Have you seen her?” said Rob as they stood in the garden.
“She’s fit,” said Tony.
“Fit? She’s fitter than fit. She’s super-super-fit. Let’s ask if we can sleep.”
The grandfather had pre-empted them.
“The beds are made up in the attic,” he said.
“Beds?” said Tony.
“Yes, you’ll need somewhere to sleep, I suppose.”
“Not at all, we’ll be going home, won’t we Rob?”
“Unless you really want us to stay.”
“I want you to be safe.”
“We’re perfectly safe, aren’t we Rob?”
“Perfectly, but if it would reassure you…”
“Don’t you think you should tell your parents where you are?”
“They don’t mind,” said Tony, “I mean, they mind, but they don’t worry. Too much. We’re independent, you see. Rob busks and I keep an eye out…I mean I pass the hat. We’re young entrepreneurs. We’ll probably be billionaires by the time we’re twenty.”
“I really ought to inform the authorities.”
“The authorities? Don’t trouble them over us. They’ve got big fish to fry. Terrorism, fraud, people trafficking. What do they want with a pair of scallies who know how to look after themselves?” said Tony.
“Why did you run away from Clapforth?”
“Private lessons, “ said Rob.
“Ah. Do your parents know?”
“They trust the school.”
“Ah. I was privately educated myself.”
“Private lessons?” said Rob.
“Of course. Prefects in gowns who gave us the cane. I was miserable.”
“You should have done a bunk,” said Rob.
“University was much better and I found my way into a lucrative career.”
“You should’ve done a bunk all the same,” said Rob.
They would stay the night and Mr Alexander wouldn’t inform the authorities, out of respect for their autonomy.
“Where do you think she sleeps?” said Rob.
“In a bed.”
“Maybe I could sneak down.”
“He’d go mad. She’d go mad. Wait till breakfast.”
Melissa appeared in her school uniform. Her blouse was whiter than any white Rob had ever seen. The purple of her skirt was more purple than any painter had ever imagined. She smiled and said “Good morning” and her teeth were the most even, beautiful teeth any human had ever possessed.
“School today?” said Rob.
“Yes,” she said, digging her little silver spoon into her grapefruit.
“That’s great,” said Rob.
“Is it?” she said.
“I should think so,” he said. “I mean, what have you got at school today?”
“Lessons,” she said.
Rob laughed and elbowed Tony.
“That’s a good one. Lessons. That’s good, eh Tony. Brilliant.”
“What’s brilliant about it?” she said.
“Wit,” said Rob. “Very witty. We love wit, don’t we Tony. We’re always exchanging repartee. A witty girl, that’s just up our street.”
“Why shouldn’t a girl be witty?”
“That’s what I say. I hate sexism. Absolutely. Anything a boy can do a girl can do.”
“Not anything,” she said.
“No, of course not. Not anything, For example…”
“For example, what?” she said, continuing to dig into her halved fruit.
“Well, I don’t know. I should think there are one or two things..”
“Pissing standing up,” she said.
“There we are, great example. Eh, Tony,” and he elbowed his mate again.
“And erections, of course. Certainly erections.”
“Though the clitoris gets erect so I suppose you could think of that as an equivalent.”
“I suppose you could. I’ve never thought of it that way. Have you, Tony?”
Tony kept his eyes and his attention on his bacon, scrambled eggs, fried bread, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages and beans.
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” she said.
“No,” said Rob, “it’s not something you think about every day, is it? I mean I don’t. Of course, you might.”
“I don’t,” she said.
“No, I wouldn’t have imagined you would. Anyway, your granddad says your mum is in Dubai. What does she do there?”
“I don’t give a fuck,” she said.
“Well, why should you. I mean, Dubai. It’s a long way away, isn’t it? Who’d want to be there? Sand, oil and tall buildings. Not me.”
“Five thousand six hundred and fifty two point two kilometres.”
“That’s how far it is.”
“Of course. Five thousand. Yes, a long way. Can’t do that on a bike, can you? Eh, Tony? How many times have you visited?”
“Don’t blame you. Too hot for us, eh Tony?” and he nudged his friend once more.
“The highest recorded temperature.”
“I’d melt. Phew. Twenty five and my feet start to turn to water. No, you’re right. I wouldn’t go near the place.”
“The shopping is fabulous.”
“Is it? I mean, of course it is. Everybody knows that. Shopping in Dubai. Better than the Arndale centre, eh Tony?” and his elbow dug into his companion’s arm.
“I’d love to go.”
“So would I.”
“Do you like shopping?”
“Like it? Can’t get enough. Marks and Spencer, Topshop, Next, Monsoon, River Island, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Tesco, Aldi, Asda, Debenhams, Sports Direct, W.H.Smith, Home Bargains, HMV, Boots, Holland and Barrett, Primark, I love ‘em all. Put me in a shop and I’m in ecstasy.”
“I wouldn’t be seen dead in Primark,” she said.
“Nor would I. I wouldn’t be seen alive in there. Terrible place. Give me Dubai any day.”
“Boys don’t usually like shopping.”
“True,” said Rob. “But I’m unusual. We’re unusual, aren’t we Tony,” and his hoppo pulled away before his elbow could make contact.
“You seem quite normal to me.”
“Normal? Us? No, no. Utterly abnormal. Anything normal is no good to us. We’re fans of the abnormal.”
“I’m abnormal,” she said.
“Are you? I mean, you are. Completely. You’re the most abnormal girl I’ve met. In a nice way, of course. Definitely on the nice side of abnormal.”
“I’m going to kill my mother.”
“Are you? That’s interesting. In a way. It’s not everyday you meet someone with such straightforward ambition. Are you going to do it in Dubai?”
“I might. I might wait till she comes to England than I can plead diminished responsibility.”
“Of course you can. Anyone can see your responsibility’s diminished. Isn’t it, Tony,” but he was too far away for contact.
“I’m insane, you see.”
“Are you? That’s nice. How long have you been bonkers?”
“As long as I can remember.”
“That’s better than going bonkers, I suppose. I mean if you’ve always been nuts you don’t know any different do you? It’s just the way things are for you. Which must be nice. In a way.”
“It’s just the way I am.”
“Of course it is. Just the way you are. Like in the song: “I love you just the way you are..” and he sang and laughed at himself and tried to nudge Tony.
“No one could love me.”
“Couldn’t they? I mean, not even a little bit. Or for a while.”
“I’m a mess.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought. When you sat down I thought, she’s a mess. Not in your appearance of course. You’re very….smart and your hair is nice, as hair goes, though some people might think it’s a bit of a mess…”
“In here,” she said, setting her finger against her temple.
“In there. Yes, well we’re all a bit untidy in there aren’t we. Look at us, runaways from one of the most expensive schools in the country. Crackers, eh? That’s us. We’re a bit wrong in the head, like you. Birds of a feather really.”
“Would you like to kill your mother?”
“My mum? No. I mean, not most of the time. Perhaps now and again, when she makes me tidy my room or takes my X-box away. Maybe a tiny bit then. You know, just a tiny bit dead. Not entirely. No. But I’m not prejudiced. I’m not in favour of anti-matricidalism. People want to murder their mothers, that’s all right by me. Within limits, of course.”
“She’s a selfish bitch.”
“Is she? Does she make you tidy your room and take your X-box away?”
“No one exists but her.”
“Really? That’s peculiar. So many people in the world. Funny. I suppose she’s on a spectrum or something. I knew a boy like that at primary school. Asperger’s or some such. Lived in his own little bubble…”
“She’s not on a spectrum, she’s evil.”
“Is she? Can Ritalin cure it? There’s a pill for everything these days, isn’t there?”
“Her existence is an insult. She has to go.”
“Does she? I mean, she does. If you say so. Yes, if she’s evil. Well, that’s serious. Asperger’s is one thing, evil is another.”
“I shall kill her with a knife.”
“It’s as good a way as any.”
“Through the heart.”
“Perfect. Instant death. You’ve obviously thought it through.”
“The only way. No point getting all hot and bothered. That’s when things go wrong, isn’t it? Stay cool. Be British, as my dad says.”
“I shall stab her and then kill myself.”
“Yourself? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“It’ll be in the papers.”
“I suppose it will, but maybe being alive and not in the papers is better than being dead and in them, if you see what I mean.”
“What kind of tragic heroine doesn’t take her own life?”
“A live one?”
“What’s the point of being alive?”
“I’ve got no idea, but I expect there is one. Or maybe more than one. Do you play a musical instrument? I play guitar. I’d miss that if I was dead. You should take up piano or clarinet. Then you could murder your mother and carry on living.”
“In an asylum?”
“Isn’t it care in the community these days?”
“Not for girls who kill. We’re very rare, you see. We’re exceptional people. Not many people have the courage.”
“I can imagine. It’s not everyone who can get the bread knife out of the drawer and see off their old mum, eh? That’s out of the ordinary all right. I said to Tony as soon as I saw you, she’s out of the ordinary.”
“All kinds of ways. Obviously not a run of the mill person, that’s what I said. Quite unusual.”
“You didn’t know I was a killer.”
“I didn’t, but I could see your potential.”
“You didn’t know I’m mad.”
“Not exactly, but I could see you were a bit, you know, on the weird side.”
“But you want to kiss me all the same.”
“Me? Not at all. I mean, if you asked me, if you wanted me to, I would. As a favour, you know. I wouldn’t want to be rude. But the idea hadn’t occurred to me. No. Not at all.”
“I might let you kiss me later.”
“Later? Well that would be fine with me. I’m in no hurry.”
“I don’t usually have anything to do with younger boys.”
“I don’t blame you. Immature, aren’t they? No, stick to the older ones. Fourteen at least.”
“My boyfriend is twenty-five.”
“A good age. The right age for a girl like you. Kind of. I mean, you could always try someone younger. Twenty-five, people get stuck in their ways, don’t they. Waiting for a pension and a bus pass. But I’m not ageist. Not me. Age is no barrier, that’s what I say. A boy of fourteen, a girl of sixteen, where’s the problem?”
She pushed aside her plate of kipper and tomato, from which she’d picked the bones and eaten nothing, stood up and walked slowly out of the room without a word.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Tony.
“I might get to kiss her later.”
“You might get a carving knife in your tripes.”
“She isn’t serious.”
“You can’t like a girl who wants to kill her mother?”
“She may be beautiful but she’s disturbed.”
“I’ll concentrate on the beauty and forget the rest.”
“We’ve got to put this place behind us.”
“Where are we going to sleep? And where else will we get a breakfast like this? The old guy likes us. Let’s stay a while.”
“He might turn out to be as mad as her.”
“He’s as sane as me.”
“Till we get to know the town. A couple of nights.”
“I don’t like it.”
“I like her. Did you see her…”
“Yes, I saw.”
They went into the garden where there was a large pond full of fish.
“What are they?” said Rob.
“I don’t know. Carp maybe.”
“That’s right,” said a voice behind them, “carp. My wife was very fond of them.”
“I have a goldfish,” said Rob. “In my room. He’s called Bill. I won him at the fair. My dad said he’d be dead in a fortnight but he’s lasted two years. It’s his anniversary next week.”
“That’s a coincidence,” said the old man, “next week is the anniversary of my wife’s death.”
“Sorry to hear that,” said Tony.
“Yes, very sorry,” said Rob.
“This is where she drowned.”
“In the pond? said Tony.
“Yes, threw herself in after drinking a bottle of vodka.”
“Did it bother the fish?” said Rob.
“Melissa found her in the morning. The shock turned her mind.”
“I can imagine,” said Rob. “Maybe she tripped, fell in face first and couldn’t get out.”
“No, it was to get away from me. Let me show you something.”
He took them to his study, a large, high room on the first floor with a huge bay overlooking the garden. There was a vast desk with a drawing board, pots of pens and pencils, rulers, set squares, protractors and a computer who screen bore a complex design of distantly converging lines.
“Look,” he said, pointing to a hatchet in frame over the mantlepiece.
“Is it a work of modern art?” said Tony.
“No, it’s the axe my wife bought to kill me with.”
“Well, it looks good quality,” said Rob. “She was no cheapskate.”
“I’m afraid my granddaughter takes after her.”
“Has she bought a hatchet too?” said Rob.
“I would have that removed if I were you,” said Tony.
“It’s commemorative. It reminds me how lucky I was to escape with my life.”
“All’s well that ends well,” said Rob.
“What do you think of Melissa?”
“Very nice girl,” said Rob. “Very…charming. One of the most charming girls I’ve ever met in fact. I like her.”
“Watch out. If she doesn’t take her medication, she’s dangerous.”
“Oh, I’m sure she does take it, doesn’t she?” said Rob.
“Sometimes she forgets, on purpose. She’s had to be restrained before now.”
“I’m meeting her later,” said Rob. “She promised me…. a chat. Yes, a bit of chat. Didn’t she, Tony.”
“She’s experienced beyond her age,” said her grandfather.
“Is she? Well, that’s nice. We should have plenty to talk about.”
They left the house at lunchtime so Rob could busk while the streets were busy.
“Did you hear what he said? Experienced beyond her years. It’s a dream come true,” said Rob.
“ She wants to kill her mother.”
“That’s not unusual.”
“It’s unusual to plan it like a summer holiday.”
“She’s an intelligent girl. You wouldn’t expect her to ad lib.”
“Harold Shipman was intelligent but you wouldn’t have let him have tea with your granny.”
“She must be the fittest girl in the north of England.”
“ She’s stunning, Rob, but she’s mad.”
“Don’t exaggerate. She has a difficult relationship with her mother.”
“Look,” said Tony, “her Facebook page is full of this stuff.”
“She just does it to impress. Most people’s Facebook pages would convince the average psychiatrist the world has gone bonkers.”
“It has if you think she’ll be a good girlfriend.”
It was a happy afternoon’s busking. Sometimes people were generous. Sometimes they were stingy. Who could say why? Could they explain it themselves? Not any more than the rest of their behaviour. People go through life with the idiot illusion they are in control of their actions but their minds are working away in the dark and their moods, inclinations and ideas shift like high branches in a gale and there’s nothing they can do about it. Rob had no idea why sometimes he could play for an hour and have nothing in the hat but a few coppers and a couple of five pence pieces and at other times, the pound coins would drop like autumn leaves and even the occasional fiver float down as if dropped by god himself. Was it to do with the movement of the planets? Was it the exchange rate? Was it the operation of the free market? Was it the intervention of the invisible hand? Or was it the customary inconsistency and unpredictability of human behaviour?
One thing he was sure of: people copied one another. If everyone was walking past him and ignoring him, then nobody broke ranks and flipped a fifty pence his way. All it took was two or three shoppers, office workers, students, men in suits, women in joggers, mothers with pushchairs, old blokes with walking sticks, young lads on skateboards to dip into their pockets and it seemed the whole of humanity might be tilted in the direction of generosity to teenage runaways with a half-way competent grasp of harmony.
People were inconsistent but consistent. Unpredictable but predictable. At first, he thought if he received little it was because he must be playing badly, but bit by bit he grasped there was hardly any relation between how well he played and what collected in the hat. He could show off a new command of difficult chord changes and end up as skint as when he began. He could play the simplest things he knew, no more demanding than Happy Birthday, and have enough for two pizzas and ice creams. There was simply no correlation between money and quality.
“Funny that, isn’t it,” said Rob.
“If you pay a hundred grand for a car you expect it to be better than a Skoda Fabia.”
“You’re a genius,” Rob.
“But you could buy a CD of Bach in Oxfam for two quid.”
“The music isn’t.”
“It’s the CD you’re paying for”
“Or you could buy Pride and Prejudice for one ninety nine,”
“A used paperback.”
“Of great writing.”
“You’re not paying for the writing, just the book.”
“I know, but it’s Rolls-Royce writing and it’s cheap as water.”
“Don’t trouble over it. It’s the way the economy works.”
“You know,” he said to Tony, “I made nearly fifteen quid today and I played nothing I couldn’t have played when I was eleven.”
“Mozart was playing great music long before that.”
“Be sensible, I’m not Mozart.”
“Me be sensible, and you fancy a psychopath.”
“People will pay for poor music if they’re in the mood and ignore good music if they aren’t.”
“People pay for what they like.”
“How do they know what they like?”
“They like it.”
“But how do they know they like it?”
“How do you know you like pepperami pizza?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t if other people didn’t.”
“What’s it to do with other people. It’s just your taste buds.”
“Yeah, but how many English people eat snails? The French do it all the time.”
“Do you like snails?”
“There we are. It’s just your taste.”
“But music isn’t just a matter of taste.”
“Because Mozart’s is obviously better music than Adele’s.”
“People like Adele.”
“Maybe because everybody else does.”
“What does it matter?”
“Good music matters.”
“Why, if people listen to what they like?”
“Because they don’t know why they like it and they don’t really know whether they like it.”
“Oh, eat your pizza and shut up.”
Melissa didn’t appear at dinner but later when Rob was practising in the lounge and Tony was reading The Complete Works of Chaucer which he’d found on Mr Alexander’s shelves, she came through the door naked with the commemorative hatchet in her hands. Tony leapt out of his seat and the expensive volume fell to the polished floorboards. Rob wrapped his arms round his guitar.
“You can kiss me, now, if you like,” she said.
“Is the axe really necessary?” said Rob.
“It’s for my mother.”
“She’s in Dubai,” said Rob. “You’ll have to murder her some other time. Let’s just stick to snogging for the minute.”
“I have to kill her tonight, or it’ll be too late.”
“Too late for what?” said Rob.
“Is murder overseen by a government department? Have they set up OFKILL? We live in a democracy. You’re free to commit murder when it appeals to you.”
Mr Alexander charged in, his eyes wild, his top button undone, an aspect of desperation in his demeanour.
“My hatchet! That has great sentimental value. Melissa, give it me at once.”
She raised it above her head, held in both hands.
“Where’s my mother?”
“In Dubai,” said her grandfather.
“Then to Dubai at once.”
She brought the blade down on the back of the sofa, raised it and struck again and again. Mr Alexander tried to seize the weapon but she was too quick to dance out of his way. The armchairs were attacked. The drinks cabinet demolished. The bookshelves splintered. The coffee table hacked.
“Where’s that boy who wants to kiss me?” she cried.
Rob and Tony who had taken refuge behind the floor-length curtains, looked at one another, bolted, grabbed their measly belongings from the bedroom, climbed out of the window onto the fire-escape, hurtled through the garden and clambered over the wall into the park while Melissa chopped the banisters and smashed the paintings in the stairwell in her lugubrious progress to discover her prey.
THE MYSTERY OF REFLEXOLOGY
The boys ran out of the park, past The Continental, over the old, cobbled bridge, across the road and took the shady path by the side of the Methodist church.
“I told you she was a psychopath,” said Tony.
“But did you see her…”
“Yes, I saw it.”
“I’m sorry to leave her behind behind.”
“She has a very nice behind, Rob.”
“She does, and that’s not to be sniffed at.”
“Better see where this leads us,” said Tony swiping his mobile.
They followed the path past a caravan park on the left, took the bridge over the dual carriageway and emerged into Hurst Grange park.
“Well, this is nice,” said Rob, resting on a bench, “very nice. Nothing like the peace of nature to ease the pangs of a broken heart.”
“You hardly knew the girl.”
“You’ve no romance in you. It’s disappointing in someone with a flair for French.”
“Why should being good at French make me romantic?”
“Have you never been to Paris?”
“Of course I have. Have you?”
“Then you’re talking through your underpants.”
“You don’t have to go there to know what it’s like. You just have to listen to Django or Charles Aznavour or Piaf or Trenet singing Douce France,” and he began to croon and strum: “C’est la romance de Paris, aux coins des rues elle fleurit, ca met aux coeurs des amoureux un peu de joie et de ciel bleu …..”
“How do you know that?”
“My dad has a record. One of those old vinyl things he plays on his what-you’m-call-it. He says when he listens to it he can smell the coffee, taste the croissants and see the bateaux mouches on the Seine.”
“According to Google,” said Tony, “we’re in Penwortham, so you’d probably best get ready for the smell of fish and chips and the taste of stewed tea.”
“What does it say about Penwortham?” said Rob, working out a chord progression.
“Penwortham is a town in South Ribble, Lancashire, England on the south bank of the River Ribble facing Preston. It is the most westerly crossing of the river. Main rail and road links cross here. The population at the last census was 23,047.”
“Twenty three thousand,” said Rob, “that’s not a town. It’s a big village.”
“It calls itself a town.”
“Boris Johnson calls himself a politician.”
“All politicians are clowns.”
“Clowns with nuclear weapons, armies, prisons, riot police and water cannon. You don’t get that at Circus Mondao.”
“This is not the time to expound your theory of anarchism.”
“Anarchism is the only respectable political philosophy.”
“How can you be respectable without property?”
“Do you mean Christ wasn’t respectable?”
“Christ didn’t need a mortgage. Anyway, you’re an atheist.”
“And a devout Christian.”
“You make no sense.”
“Perfect sense. There is no god, but love your neighbour as yourself is a good principle.”
“So good it’s ignored by most Christians.”
“Of course. They fall into the common delusion that identification with a non-existent creator makes them superior.”
“Why would they want to be superior?”
“So they can kid themselves their identity doesn’t depend on other people.”
“You make no sense. Stop strumming that thing and come on.”
From Hurst Grange they emerged onto Cop Lane which they followed to Liverpool Road, which they crossed to enter Priory Lane, which they stayed on till found themselves by the banks of the Ribble again.
“Penwortham seems a posh place,” said Rob, “I’ll try busking where it’s busy.”
Before they could set off, they heard a woman’s voice.
“Excuse me, boys, have you seen a Yorkshire terrier?”
The voice belonged to a woman of fifty or so dressed for the rain in spite of the dry. On her feet were clumpy walking boots from which sprouted thick, pink socks pulled up to her calves. She wore a waterproof jacket of dark green adorned with more pockets than a snooker table, all apparently packed with essentials for her journey. Her hair was chemical silver and beautifully straightened, which clashed with the confusion of the rest of her appearance. On her nose rested a pair of one-pound glasses, one arm of which had fallen off and she peered through them as if they offered little correction.
“No,” said Tony. “We’ve seen no dogs.”
“That’s a bloody nuisance,” she said. “That’s impossible. A dog can’t evaporate. It defies the laws of physics. He scampered through those bushes. He must have come out this way.”
“Maybe he’s hiding,” said Rob.
“Why would he do that?”
“Perhaps he’s being pursued.”
“He is, by me.”
“Won’t he come if you call him?”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried that?” she said and at once began summoning the wayward pet with undulating cries of “Wilder, Wilder, Wilder.”
“That’s an odd name for a dog,” said Rob.
“Would you say it’s an odd name for a man?”
“Well, there we are. He’s named after a man.”
“A man called Wilder.”
“Thornton Wilder ?” said Tony.
“Who’s he?” said Rob.
“A writer,” said Tony. “My parents went to see a play by him called Our Town. My dad didn’t understand a word of it.”
“Your dad wouldn’t understand a word of Postman Pat.”
“He’s a very clever man.”
“At taking money off the dead.”
“It’s very lucrative.”
“It doesn’t develop the imagination though, does it?”
“Not Thornton Wilder,” said the woman as she crouched to see beneath the shrubs, “Wilder Penfield.”
“Who’s he?” said Rob.
“Is he a pop star?” said Tony.
She snorted in disdain.
“A film star?” said Rob.
“Films are for children,” she said.
“A sportsman?” said Tony.
“I’ve never played sport in my life. I always thought a hockey ball too hard for public use.”
“A minor member of the royal family by marriage?” suggested Rob.
“Royalty is a delusion,” she replied.
“A news reader?” said Tony.
“A disc jockey,” said Rob.
“A chat show host,” said Tony.
She pulled herself upright.
“A scientist,” she said.
“What did he discover?” said Rob.
“The brain,” she said.
“Wow, that must have taken some doing,” said Rob. “He should’ve gone to France. You can buy them in jars in the supermarkets.”
“Where is that wretched dog? Wilder. Wilder. Wilder.”
“We’ll have a look in the bushes,” said Rob. “You go that way Tony and I’ll go through here. We’ll meet in the middle.”
They fought through the branches, scratched their hands and faces, snagged their jeans and coats, but found no trace of the abscondee.
“Nothing there,” they said brushing the leaves and twigs from their clothes.
“He’s done a bunk,” she said. “He’s been threatening to do it for years.”
“Did he tell you he had it in mind?” said Rob.
“He has ways of communicating.”
“Morse code?” said Rob.
“E-mail?” said Tony.
“All animals communicate,” she said.
“Why isn’t he answering you, then?” said Rob.
“Not with language. Language didn’t evolve for communication.”
“Of course not,” she said petulantly, “don’t they teach you anything in school these days?”
“Not us,” said Tony.
“We’re truants,” said Rob.
“That’s what I like to hear. Schools are institutions for the promulgation of ignorance.”
“My sentiments exactly,” said Rob. “Perhaps you could persuade the government of your enlightened position.”
“I wouldn’t try to persuade a government of anything. They’re composed of men and women who have closed their minds to reason.”
“What an optimistic view,” said Tony.
“Optimism is for idiots. Hope and reason are the only valuable qualities.”
“What do you hope for?” said Rob.
“I hope that bloody dog’s going to show its nose in the next five minutes.”
As the cur didn’t oblige, the creatures had to set off in search. They explored Priory Crescent, investigated Hollinhurst Avenue, interrogated Kingsway, dug around in Princes Drive and finally questioning Church Avenue whose expensive houses stood stately and dominant behind squares of well-tended lawn, hedges , walls and fences, found the miscreant Wilder flat out in the middle of the grass before a splendid place with a Bentley parked on the drive.
“I wonder if they’d like a bit of private busking?” said Rob.
“Come here,” called the woman. “You silly dog. I’ve been looking all over Lancashire for you. What do you think you’re doing?”
At the sound of her rebukes the dog jumped up and ran for it. The boys tried to head him off. He turned, dodged, barked, swerved, jumped, skidded, twisted, circled, doubled back, yelped till finally Tony, throwing himself full length grabbed his collar and brought him whining at the injustice of his capture back to his owner.
Grateful for their help, the lady offered them reward.
“No,” said Tony, “our pleasure.”
“But if you’d like to hear me busk….” said Rob.
“What do you play?”
“You name it, I’ll play it.”
“Can you play Bach?”
“Bach? Well, a bit. With practice.”
“Come to my house,” she said, “and I’ll feed you. No need to perform. You can entertain Wilder while I cook.”
Her house was a laboratory. It was at the opposite end of Kingsway from Church Avenue, a handsome enough semi which might have housed Mr and Mrs Normal and their two point four children John Normal, Jane Normal and point-four-indeterminate-gender Normal. Its bays, front and integral garage doors, downspouts and gutters were painted Tudor black and white; its small front garden was neat. There was nothing about its appearance to disturb the Tory voting conformist neighbours. Indoors, however, it was established for the exploration of the oddities of the human brain. There were curious assemblages of mirrors; artificial hands, arms, legs, noses, ears, feet, set beside concealing panels, under tables, apparently wired up to computers. Screens were illuminated all around: table-top computers, laptops, buzzing, flashing, displaying graphs, and everywhere images of brains, front elevation, rear elevation, side elevation, left hemisphere, right hemisphere.
Rob stood before an animation. The brain turned slowly, divided like the Red Sea, split apart as particular sections turned red or yellow. Then body parts appeared alongside specific reticulations: a huge mouth, equally exaggerated hands, eyes, ears, limbs, then feet and immediately next to them male and female genitalia. He turned away.
“Tony, look at this.”
“Oh, it’s gone.”
“Maybe it’ll come up again. Feet and fannies.”
“I tell you, it was there on the screen.”
“No, it’s obviously scientific.”
“Feet and fannies?”
“Yes, and cocks and balls.”
“Cock and bull more like.”
“There must be some connection.”
“I think you need to revise Gray’s Anatomy.”
Their hostess appeared, her sleeves rolled up and a parsnip and peeler in her hands.
“Do you like parsnip soup?”
“I’ve never had it,” said Tony.
“Good. I can measure you brain activity as you taste it.”
“I couldn’t help noticing…” said Rob.
“Shut up,” whispered Tony, kicking him on the shin.
“Oh, that hurt. I’m not wearing shin pads, you know.”
“Couldn’t help noticing what?” she said peeling and slipping the debris in her pocket.
“Well, what was on the screen. Here. Feet. But not only feet.”
“Ah, that. The mystery of reflexology.”
“Foot massage,” said Tony.
“Oh, yeah, different bits of your feet connect to different organs and so on.”
“Piffle,” she said.
“My mum has it,” said Tony, “she says it’s very relaxing. There’s a chap in our avenue who does it. All the women go to him.”
“And pay through the nose for letting him tickle their feet,” she said.
“You think it’s a fraud?” said Rob.
“Not at all. It’s perfectly easy to explain. Every part of the body is mapped onto an area of the brain. When that part of the body is stimulated, the area sparks up. But not only that area. The neighbouring areas leak and leech content. The feet happen to be mapped right next to the genitals, which is why foot massage is so pleasant. The reflexology guff is pure mysticism. The science is simple.”
“Wow, they didn’t teach us that in biology.”
“They should, it’s more interesting than dissecting frogs. Now get the dog out of my kitchen and keep him happy while I concoct the dinner.”
In the garden, bounded by trimmed privets, with rose bushes to the left and lilacs and rhododendron at the far end they threw a manky, chewed rubber ball which the mutt chased as if it meant survival, retrieved and deposited at their feet, panting, eager, looking up as if something new and exciting was about to happen.
Rob launched the sphere high. The little bundle of muscle and excitement ran, jumped, caught it in its jaw in mid-air and was once more in front of his shoes.
“How long do you think he’ll go on doing this?” he said.
“As long as we keep throwing it,” said Tony.
“It must be nice to be so easily occupied.”
“She’ll probably know what’s going on in his brain.”
“Not much I’d say.”
“It must be some kind of instinct.”
“There must be a part of its brain which sparks up when the ball’s thrown, as if it’s some animal to chase and eat or something. Throwing the ball keeps hitting the switch and the bit of brain lights up and off he goes. Back and forth. Back and forth. Pretty stupid really.”
“Yeah. Millions of years of evolution to produce a dumb bow-wow that can be made to chase a soggy bit of rubber for hours on end.”
“Not so stupid when it was wild and got it’s dinner, I suppose.”
“What do you think of that business about feet?” said Rob.
“Yeah, I mean, you could ask a girl to rub your feet and that would be innocent.”
“Keep thinking like that, you’ll end up a pervert.”
“But that bloke your mum goes to, he’s making a living from it. I bet if she knew why it’s relaxing she wouldn’t go any more.”
“If my dad knew, he’d stop her.”
“It’s almost indecent.”
Wilder was ready for the next throw. Rob made as if to release the ball and the dog dashed, paused, looked one way and the other, twigged and ran back.
“You half-wit,” said Rob, “look it’s here in my hand.”
Wilder barked, wagged his tail and tensed for a sprint.
“I wonder why cats won’t chase a ball,” said Rob.
“Yeah, but they chase mice, or a ball of wool, and in the wild they must have had to hunt.”
“Funny. Maybe it’s because they’re less social.”
“They don’t get the game.”
“Then why will they chase a ball of wool?”
“Better ask her, she’s probably had electrodes on a cat’s brain before today.”
The interminable throw and catch routine was interrupted by the call to table. In the kitchen was a breakfast bar. Two steaming bowls of soup stood opposite one another and between them a plate of thin, dark brown bread. The boys hitched themselves onto tall stools. Wilder arrived with the ball in his mouth.
“Get out of my kitchen.”
The animal looked up with sad, begging eyes.
“Go on. In the garden.”
He whined as if expulsion meant death.
“Don’t try emotional blackmail with me. Out.”
Defeated, he turned and walked slowly back to the lawn.
“Emotional blackmail, that’s a good one,” said Rob with a dismissive laugh.
“He knows what he’s doing.”
“He can think?”
“Of course he can. And communicate.”
“I haven’t heard him say anything.”
“He brought the ball back to you and you threw it. He was making you do what he wanted.”
“No, I was making him do what I wanted.”
“But if he hadn’t brought the ball back you couldn’t have thrown it.”
“If I hadn’t thrown in there’d’ve been no game.”
“It was a relationship, like everything.”
“But I was in control.”
“Only so far.”
“No, I threw the ball and he brought it back.”
“If a bitch on heat had come into the garden, he’d’ve had no interest in the ball.”
“That’s just his hormones telling him how to behave.”
“You think yours don’t do the same?”
“Yeah, but I can think.”
“Do you have to think about how to walk?”
“Just like the dog, most of what goes on in your brain is prior to conscious control.”
“You mean we have no free will?”
“Of course we have free will. Don’t they teach you to reason in school anymore? Now, of your own free will, eat your soup.”
The lads dipped the bread in the thick, white, steaming liquid while the scientist went on cooking. The laminate floor was stained with great blobs and streaks of purple as were her fingers. In a five litre pan she’d boiled beetroot before slicing it and setting the rounds in a huge, flat earthenware dish of white wine vinegar. The work surfaces were covered in discarded tins whose prised-open lids stood erect, as if in anticipation of a carelessly outstretched wrist; potato peelings, carrot peelings, onion skins, parsnip peelings, the outer leaves of Brussels sprouts, broccoli stems, broad bean shells, the snipped ends of green beans, greasy, butter-larded knives, spoons which had been dipped in gravy granules or hot oil, forks, spatulas, carving knives, trimming knives, wooden spoons which had stirred who-knows-what, saucepans, frying pans, a garlic press, a cheese grater, a roll of tin foil.
She dragged a huge chicken in a roasting tin from the oven, and short of any space which could accommodate it, set it hot and sizzling between the lads.
“Let it cool for five minutes,” she said, “then carve.”
She served them where they sat, straight from the pans and trays. A great vessel of mashed potato was plonked down, then a pot of green beans, a tray of burnt parsnips, another of spitting roast potatoes, a heavy glass jug of gravy thick enough to walk on. Once all the available choices were before them, she wiped her hands impotently on her clothes.
“I’m exhausted,” she said. “I’m going to read. When you’ve eaten, clean up.”
It took them two hours to bring order from chaos.
“If she’s as chaotic about science as she is about cooking her results will be potty,” said Rob.
They found her in front of a screen watching a man with one leg explaining how his amputated limb still gave him pain.
“How can a non-existent leg hurt?” said Tony.
“Imagination,” said Rob.
“Not at all,” she said, getting to her feet, “the pain is as real as if I stuck a pin in your eye.”
“You’ll be telling us carrots scream when you chop ‘em next.”
“That’s not as daft as it sounds. Plants show primitive intelligence.”
“We didn’t evolve from carrots,” said Rob.
“You might think so when you see the Tory party conference,” she said.
“My parents are conservatives,” said Tony.
“There’s hope for them,” she said.
“What’s the conservative party got to do with amputated limbs?”
“They’d cut off socialists’ hands if they could get away with it.”
“Conservatives believe in democracy, “ said Tony.
“Only because they have to.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s opportunistic and manipulative. You should believe in an idea because it tallies with the facts, not because it serves some self-interest.”
“Anyway,” said Rob, “why does his leg hurt when it doesn’t exist.”
“Simple,” she said. “Sit down.”
With her hooked right arm she swept the books off a little table. She and Rob sat opposite one another.
“Hide your left hand under the table,” she said. “Now, watch my hand as it draws a pattern on the table. Concentrate hard.”
She drew a slow intricate pattern with the index finger of her left hand and simultaneously made the same pattern with the index of her right and on the back of Rob’s left. He stared at the table top, waiting for something to happen. Tony stood by irritated at their host’s remarks and sceptical of the silly trick. She went on for a couple of minutes when all at once Rob exclaimed:
“Bloody hell,” and pulled his left hand from under the table.
“What?” said Tony.
“I thought the table was my hand,” said Rob.
“Or a part of your body,” she said.
“It’s a trick,” said Tony.
“A trick of the brain,” she said.
“How did you do that ?” said Rob.
“Your brain did it. It’s getting two inputs, one tactile the other visual but they mimic one another exactly. So your brain goes for the simplest solution, as it always will: the table must be part of your body. It’s easy to trick the brain. The man whose leg has gone, still has the neural pathways that made it painful. All he has to do is think of his leg, or not even think about it specifically but just do something which triggers those neurons and he experiences the pain. It’s the brain that produces the pain sensation and though the leg is gone, the neurons it used to spark up are still there.”
“That’s amazing,” repeated Rob.
“It’s just a stage trick,” said Tony.
“I’ve got lots more,” she said.
They slept in the converted attic where two mattresses on the floor fought for space with books, discarded laptops, a skeleton, piles of scientific journals and a fish tank full of brightly coloured, exotic species.
“Do you think she uses them for experiments?” said Rob.
“Probably. No doubt she can prove that fish feel pain in gills that have been cut off.”
“Fish don’t have brains, do they?”
“Small ones, I guess.”
“Aren’t they supposed to have five second memories?”
“Yeah, but it might be rubbish.”
“Do you think they know we’re here?”
“Maybe,” said Tony. “I suppose they must sense our presence.”
“They have eyes, don’t they?”
“They see us and think, ‘who the hell’s that’? Do you think they think?”
“Depends what you mean by think.”
Tony had brought up the Wikipedia page on fish intelligence on his mobile.
“What does it say?”
“They do have brains, but mostly small. There’s a thing called the Red Sea Clownfish that can recognize its mate after thirty days.”
“Doing better than Julian, then.”
“That’s a kind of thinking.”
“Yeah, superior to Julian’s which seems to be “if it’s legs will open I’ll get between ‘em’.
“I wonder if some fish are more intelligent than others,” said Tony, pushing his face close to the tank.
“Bound to be, I suppose.”
“There might be a fish Einstein in this tank, or a Shakespeare or an Ed Sheeran.”
“Yeah, two geniuses and one idiot.”
“If some fish are more intelligent, there should be a fish hierarchy.”
“Yeah, that one, look, he’s Prime Minister, you can tell by the way he swims. He’s an arrogant little git, isn’t he? Fish PM by birth.”
“They all seem to do the same thing. No one’s in charge.”
“Funny isn’t it,” said Tony, lying on his bed, “we always have to have someone in charge.”
“You can’t deny it. What would happen if we didn’t?”
“We’d swim around all day, happy as a fish in water.”
“I wonder if she has an answer.”
“Don’t ask,” said Rob, “she’ll probably stick electrodes in your brain and wire you up to a tank of piranhas.”
In the morning, the brain scientist served them croissants spread with Nutella, bowls of Cheerios and cups of sweet, strong tea.
“I want you to help me with an experiment,” she said.
“Mmmm?” said Rob.
“I’m afraid it’ll entail damage to your mobile.”
“My mobile?” said Tony, “but I can’t live without it.”
“That’s just the point,” she said.
“You want to drive us to suicide?” said Rob.
“I’ll buy you new ones.”
“That’s no good, I’ll lose everything on this one.”
“Oh, I can sort that out.”
“Yes, I can save it. Easy as pie.”
“All the same,” said Tony, “my mobile.”
“And mine,” said Rob. “It has sentimental value. I’ve had it six months.”
“If my hypothesis is right it could change the world.”
“I don’t want to change the world if I have to lose my mobile.”
“Do you think your mobile is part of your body?” she said.
“No,” they answered in two-part harmony.
“I think you do.”
“That’s mad,” said Rob.
“I’m a mad scientist.”
“How could an object be part of our bodies?”
“How can an amputated leg produce pain? How can you perceive a table to be part of your body? If your brain tells you your mobile is part of your body, then that’s what you’ll experience.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Rob, looking at his i-phone.
“You wouldn’t have believed before yesterday that you could experience a table as part of your body.”
“But that was a trick,” said Tony.
“Perception is a trick,” she said. “A small lesion to a particular part of your brain and you wouldn’t recognise your mother.”
“Can’t you do the experiment on something else?”
“What is more precious to you than your mobile?”
“My guitar,” said Rob.
“Yes, perfect,” she said.
“We can destroy your guitar and see if you experience pain,”
“I’m in agony already.”
“I’ll buy you another.”
“That’s like saying you’ll by me another mother.”
“Is your guitar as precious to you as that?”
“You’d rather lose your mother than your guitar?”
“You’re not suggesting destroying my mother.”
“But if I did, would you feel pain?”
“Because she’s my mother.”
“And because she’s your mother you experience her as part of you.”
“Not of my body.”
“Yes, of your body. Where else do you feel pain?”
“In my soul,” said Tony.
“If you didn’t have a body, how would you be able to say you have a soul?”
“I could if my soul could live outside my body.”
“Not unless your soul had a brain with a cortex,” she said.
“I’m all for the advancement of science,” said Rob, “and I’m sure your theory is sick. But if you don’t mind, I’ll keep my guitar. There isn’t another with quite the same tone.”
“Yes,” she said, “your guitar is part of you, just as my theory states.”
“What is your theory, anyway?” said Tony.
“That property is self delusion,” she said.
“Property is theft,” said Rob, “I’ve heard that. It’s in a song.”
“It was in a book long before anyone sang about it,” she said. “But that’s a feeble idea. Mine is revolutionary. You think of your mobiles as part of you, but that’s a delusion. They are devices. Little machines. Very useful and interesting gadgets. But not part of you. Not part of you body nor of your identity. But your brain has tricked you. Just like you experienced the table as part of your body, so you experience your phone as part of your identity.”
“How do you know?” said Tony.
“I’m going to test my hypothesis,” she said. “I’ll destroy your phones while I measure your brain activity, if I’m right, the neurons that fire up in mental disturbances which diminish people’s sense of selfhood will spark up in your brains.”
“We might go mad,” said Tony.
“A brief, temporary insanity is perfectly possible.”
“You can’t do that,” said Rob.
“Scientists don’t have the right to drive people mad. It’s not ethical.”
“Governments do it all the time,” she said.
“Governments don’t claim to know the truth,” said Tony.
“That’s exactly what they claim,” she said.
“Can’t you use something other than our phones?” said Rob.
“Yes, your guitar.”
“No, I mean something I don’t mind about. Like my socks. You can burn those and see if the right neurons spark up.”
“They won’t,” she laughed, “you don’t care about your socks.”
“But they’re mine,” said Rob.
“Or our underpants,” said Tony.
“When I say you don’t care about those what I mean is they don’t light up the right neurons. They’re yours, but you can lose them and not bother. They don’t spark up neurons which help shape your sense of self.”
“You think our phones do?”
“I’m certain of it. If I’m wrong, it’s back to the drawing board.”
“We’ll accept your theory,” said Rob. “No need to test it. It sounds watertight to me. Take my phone away and I’d suffer pain. Yeah, I agree. Thanks for the breakfast.”
“Convincing two errant schoolboys won’t get me the Nobel Prize.”
“You think chopping up my guitar might?”
“Think of the implications. If my theory is right we could solve humanity’s greatest problem.”
“Bad breath?” said Rob.
“Obesity?” said Tony.
“Dog shit?” said Rob.
“Parking?” said Tony.
“Inequality” she declared grandly.
“I’m not letting my guitar be hacked to pieces in the service of socialism.”
“Socialism is a tainted term,” she said, “all kinds of sociopaths and tyrants have called themselves socialists. No, I’m not talking about a political doctrine. I’m not talking about speeches and manifestos. I’m talking about a demonstration that humanity lives with the delusion that property can be part of identity.”
“Why can’t it?” said Tony.
“Because it’s as illusory as believing the table is part of your body.”
“My dad works hard for his money, so what he buys with it is part of him, in a way.”
“No it isn’t,” she said gleefully, “that’s exactly the point. Our brains trick us into thinking what we have is what we are. It’s genuinely delusional. If you had none of your possessions your bodies would be as they are and so would your identity. When people imagine their house or their car or their private jet or their money in the bank is part of their selfhood, they are at the level of experiencing the table as part of their bodies.”
“How can you prove it?”
“Simple. I tricked your brain by creating two apparently unconnected inputs. That’s what happens when people mistake things for identity. The neurons which spark up to give you a sense of self cross connect to those which give you a sense of possession, or even greed and your brain solves the dilemma by attributing selfhood to inanimate objects. I reverse engineer. I destroy the inanimate objects and watch the brain activity. When I mangle your guitar you’ll experience it as a loss of part of your identity, as if you’d lost something which really does build identity, like a relationship, your mother or father or a friend.”
“Hang on,” said Tony, “then you’ve proven that his guitar is part of his identity.”
“But you said you were going to prove the opposite,” said Rob.
“No, I said I was going to demonstrate that the sense your guitar is part of your selfhood is illusory.”
“But you won’t,” said Tony.
“Yes, I will,” she said.
“How?” said Rob.
“Just as with the table. As soon as you stopped looking at it, you stopped thinking it was part of your body. Once the guitar is gone, you will cease thinking of it as part of your identity.”
“Until he buys another,” said Tony.
“Or steals one,” said Rob.
“But his identity will be different,” said Tony.
“No it won’t,” she said. “Was his body different when he thought the table was part of it? When a delusion is removed, nothing is lost. Your real identity has nothing to do with possessions. When Bill Gates gives away millions his identity doesn’t change. If he gave away every cent it wouldn’t.”
“If he gave away every cent, in America he wouldn’t survive,” said Tony.
“That’s the stupidity of a world which judges people by their possessions rather than their character. Now, on with experiment. What’s it to be, your mobile or your guitar?”
“My socks,” said Rob.
“Can’t we wait a bit?” said Tony. “It’s too soon after breakfast. It’ll give us indigestion.”
“Nonsense,” she said, “think of the Nobel Prize. You may go down in history as assistants in one of the greatest experiments of our time.”
“Aren’t you falling into a delusion?” said Tony.
“Thinking the Nobel Prize would be part of your identity.”
“It would,” she said.
“The money?” said Rob.
“No, the kudos.”
“Isn’t that just as bad?”
“That’s real,” she said, “it’s a matter of how I relate to my fellow scientists.”
“But your identity would be the same whether you had the prize or didn’t.”
“Probably, but let’s get the electrodes on your heads.”
She left the kitchen. They slid from their stools, crept out after her and along the hallway, bounded up the stairs two at a time, threw their belongings (except Rob’s guitar) from the window onto the rear lawn, climbed onto the roof, shined down a drainpipe and squeezing between the side of the brick garage and the privet hedge, sped off down Kingsway West, Crookings Lane round the back of Priory High School ( a school, that appalling territory compounded of boredom, conformism, petty advantage seeking, pursuit of certificates rather than learning and commonplace abuse) and into Parry’s Wood, where they sat with their backs against a great oak, their brains free to do what they liked.
BIG TRAINERS, GINGER AND SMILER.
“At least my guitar is safe,” said Rob.
“And our mobiles.”
“We’d be lost without them.”
“We’d be different people.”
A curious sound reached their ears. A regular rhythm. A pounding accompanied by what seemed to be accelerated breathing. Faint at first it gathered volume. They looked at one another.
“Is it?” said Tony.
“I think it is,” said Rob.
“Into the bushes,” said Tony.
“The very thought induces panic,” said Rob.
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“It was torture.”
“Torture is banned.”
“So is breaking the speed limit but everybody does it.”
The noise was upon them. Into the woods streamed a herd of boys in shorts, sports shirts and trainers. Tall boys with legs like sycamore branches, tiny boys whose limbs might snap like the twigs underfoot, fat boys red in the face, sweating and grunting, boys who ran with the elegance of ballerinas, whose feet seemed to find a secure spot with each stride, awkward boys who lurched and stumbled, threatening to collide with tree trunks or land face down in a mud patch, cool boys arriving at a gentle trot and slowing to walking pace once they were in the cover of the trees and bushes. Finally, a trio so nonchalant they walked the whole distance across the field to the wood’s edge. They dodged quickly into the domed rhododendron where Tony and Rob were hidden.
“Morning,” said Tony.
“Lovely day for a jog,” said Rob.
“What are you doin’ ‘ere?” said a skinny lad whose trainers seemed a size too big.
“Communing with nature,” said Rob, “enjoying the sweet air of morning. What about you?”
“What’re you skivin’ from?” said the second boy, a stocky lad with ginger hair.
“Life, you might say,” said Rob.
“Why aren’t you in uniform?” said the third, a cheerful, smiling character with a number one, a line and a comb-over.
“We don’t go to school,” said Tony.
“Lucky buggers,” said the boy with the over-sized trainers.
“You ‘ome schooled?” said Ginger.
“Yes,” said Rob, “that’s it. Home schooled.”
“What lesson is this,then?” said Smiler.
“Biology,” said Rob.
“Art,” said Tony, simultaneously.
“Biology with art,” said Rob. “OFSTED love it. Cross-curricular, you see. Multiple forms of intelligence and all that stuff.”
“What’s the guitar for then? said Ginger.
“Music,” said Rob.
“Art, biology and music rolled into one,” said Big Trainers. “What you gonna do, sing about photosynthesis while you suspend half a rat in formaldehyde?”
“It’s holisitic learning, said Rob. “Makes more sense then the boxes schools put learning into.”
“Have you never been to school?” said Smiler.
“Oh yes,” said Tony, “we were at Clapforth.”
“Isn’t that one of those toffee-nosed places?” said Ginger.
“That’s right,” said Rob, “far too toffee-nosed for us. That’s why we got out.”
“Your parents got you out?” said Smiler.
“Yes,” said Rob.
“No,” said Tony.
They exchanged obvious glances.
“You ran away?” said Big Trainers.
“Well, not exactly,” said Rob, “we’ve sort of taken a bit of an unofficial holiday.”
“Sick,” said Ginger.
“We’re doin’ the same,” said Big Trainers, “an unofficial holiday from cross country.”
The three of them laughed, wild, happy, carefree laughter. The laughter of boys who had seen through the shabby deal offered by the education system: give up living, make a categorical agreement with the way things are; keep your noses clean; please your teachers; pass your exams and somewhere in the future will come your rewards. Ginger, Big Trainers and Smiler wanted their rewards in the present. They wanted to live. They weren’t willing to indefinitely postpone living freely for the promise of some offer which might never be fulfilled. They didn’t accept they couldn’t make their own choices. Why should they run cross country when they didn’t want to? They would have gladly played table tennis or gone for a bike ride. It was the sadism of Mr Jones which forced them to act against their will. Mr Jones had been in the army. He knew what was good for a boy: to exhaust himself running through cow dung, scrambling up muddy banks, sliding down into a polluted stream where used condoms floated by, getting back covered in mud and filth to stand under a tepid shower and have to get dressed and to the next lesson in two minutes flat.
“Won’t you get in trouble?” said Tony.
“Only if we get caught,” said Big Trainers.
“Jones will slap us in detention and makes up pick litter if we do,” said Smiler.
“What will your parents say,” said Tony.
“My mum’s too busy working to bother,” said Big Trainers. “She has three jobs.”
“My dad’ll tell me I’ll never got a job if I keep getting put in detention,” said Ginger, “but who wants a job anyway?”
“I’ll intercept the letter,” said Smiler, “my folks’ll never know.”
“How did you end up ‘ere, anyway?” said Ginger.
“We had to avoid having our mobiles mashed and electrodes stuck on our brains.”
“Is that what they do to you at Clapforth?” said Big Trainers.
“Is it some new educational theory?” said Smiler.
“Smashing your mobiles, that’s harsh,” said Ginger.
“Not school,” said Tony, “ a scientist we met.”
“Why’d he want to smash your phones?”
“ She. To prove they’re part of our bodies.”
“Eh?” said Ginger.
“Or rather to prove they’re not,” said Rob.
“Bloody genius,” said Big Trainers.
“She tricked me into thinking a table was my hand,” said Rob.
“She should be in a circus,” said Smiler.
“It’s proper science,” said Tony.
“Sound like it,” said Big Trainers, “turning a table into a hand.”
“It wasn’t actually my hand,” said Rob, “I just thought it was. Like you think your mobile is part of you.”
“My mobile isn’t part of me,” said Ginger.
“But you’d feel pain if it was taken away.”
“I’d feel more pain if I had to run three miles through cow shit and mud,” said Smiler.
They laughed again.
“What d’your parents think about you running away?” said Smiler.
“We haven’t spoken to them,” said Tony.
“You’ve run away from ‘ome too?” said Ginger.
“They’d send us back otherwise,” said Rob.
“Shit,” said Big Trainers. “Where you sleeping?”
“Wherever we can.”
“We know somewhere,” said Smiler.
“We do,” said Ginger.
“Meet us ‘ere after school,” said Big Trainers, “we’ll show you.”
The house was set in its own grounds. There were two entrances. One, guarded by wooden gates eight feet tall and thick as conspiracy and a second pedestrian access with a little, black, wrought-iron barrier which hung at an angle from its rusty hinges and squeaked open with a betraying screech.
“Don’t worry,” said Big Trainers, “there’s no one around.”
It was a big, square, stately affair with six windows in the upstairs front, a portico before the door and two great stone bays. They cut through the rhododendrons, across the still trim lawn and round the back. Big Trainers lifted a stone, pulled out a five-inch key and opened the back door.
“No one lives here?” said Rob.
“Not at the moment,” said Ginger.
“Who used to?” said Tony.
“No idea,” said Smiler, “we came snooping one night for a laugh and discovered it, just like Columbus discovering America.”
“Yeah,” said Big Trainers, “we should claim it as ours.”
“We have,” said Ginger and the trio roared with irreverent laughter.
The furniture and carpets were all in place, the electrics worked, hot and cold water ran from the taps.
“Come on, let’s watch the telly in the big room,” said Ginger but Tony and Rob wanted to explore.
There were eight bedrooms and two bathrooms, one big enough to accommodate the average jazz audience three times over.
“The owners must be millionaires,” said Rob.
“Several times over.”
“Maybe it’s a footballer.”
“For Preston North End?”
“Or a tech entrepreneur.”
“Or a pop star.”
“Or a film star.”
“Or a commodity broker.”
“Or a hedge fund owner.”
“Or a best-selling novelist.”
“Or a film director.”
“Or the CEO of a footsie company.”
“Or the Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs at the U.N.”
“Or a Permanent Secretary.”
“Or an art dealer.”
“Or even an artist.”
“Or a Nobel laureate scientist.”
“Well, who do you think in Preston could make enough money for a place like this?”
“Someone like my dad,” said Tony.
“He isn’t a multi-millionaire.”
“But he will be.”
“From sorting out the affairs of the dead? Sick.”
“It’s not abandoned. They’ll be coming back,” said Tony.
“We can stay till they do.”
“We might get arrested.”
“We’ll keep an eye out. If we hear anything we’ll run for it.”
Smiler, Big Trainers and Ginger went to the chip shop and came back with trays covered in gravy and curry sauce.
“We could skive off and move in with ‘em,” said Big Trainers.
“Do they give private lessons in your school?” said Rob.
“What?” said Ginger.
“Private lessons,” said Rob, “you know, boys doing little favours for teachers and prefects.”
“Yeah,” said Smiler, “like taking the register to the office or adding to the wall displays.”
“Those aren’t favours we’d have run away from.”
“Oh,Christ,” said Big Trainers.
“What?” said Smiler.
“You play with my dick I’ll play with yours,” said Ginger.
Smiler spat his chips on the carpet.
“Why do you think we did a bunk?” said Rob.
“ One o’them pervy schools,” said Ginger. “I don’t blame you.”
“Imagine Jones trying that,” said Smiler.
“I’d kick him in the balls,” said Big Trainers.
“I’d kick him in the balls anyway,” said Ginger.
“Sadist,” said Smiler.
“Sadist yourself,” said Ginger.
“Jones, I meant,” said Smiler.
“Yeah, sends us on cross country on the coldest, wettest days. When the weather’s good we’re in the gym.”
“When it’s cold he warms his arse in his office.”
“Perk o’ the job,” said Smiler.
“You should come to our school,” said Big Trainers.
“Yeah, none o’ that dodgy stuff,” said Ginger.
“We could sneak you in,” said Smiler.
“How?” said Rob.
“You could be foreign vistors,” said Ginger. “They’d believe that.”
“Yeah,” said Smiler, “cousins from Portugal or Prague.”
“But we look English,” said Tony.
“And we don’t speak Portugese,” said Rob.
“So much the better,” said Ginger. “Albania, somewhere like that. None of the teachers speak Albanian”
“Yeah,” said Big Trainers, “you wouldn’t have to say anything. Just grunt and point.”
It was decided. The next morning Tony and Rob, after a fine breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, cornflakes and yogurt provided from the kitchens of their three friends, joined the boys in black blazers and the girls in black cardigans piling off buses, speeding on bikes, sauntering on foot along Liverpool Road, Crookings Lane, Queensway, Highgate, Kingsway and Crow Hills Road. Silent as Trappists they tried to look inconspicuous.
“Who’re they?” said a blonde girl who to Rob looked about eighteen.
“My cousins,” said Big Trainers.
“What they doin’ ‘ere?”
“Visitin’, from Albania.”
“Look at a map,” said Ginger.
“I will,” she said, taking out her phone. “’Ow’d you spell it?”
Big Trainers spelled it out, sounding the letters as to a four-year-old.
“I know the alphabet, you dickhead.”
“I bet you know the two times table as well,” said Ginger.
“You’re in set three for maths too, you drongo.”
“What’re they called?” said her friend, a tall thin girl with long black hair and teeth like a thoroughbred.
Tony and Rob kept their heads down. The three friends looked at one another.
“Guess,” said Smile.
“’Ow’m I supposed to guess? I don’t know their language.”
“Get it right, you’ll get a reward,” said Big Trainers.
“What’s that?” she said.
“A snogging session with ‘im,” said Ginger, pointing to Big Trainers.
“I wouldn’t snog him for a million pounds,” she said.
“I wouldn’t snog you for two,” said Big Trainers.
“’Ere, I’ve found it,” said the blonde, showing her screen to her friend. “It’s near Greece. I’ve been there.”
“Athens?” said Smiler.
“No, Greece, you wanker.”
“One of the islands?” said Ginger.
“Yeah, we had to get a boat,” she said.
“I dunno,” she said, “just a fuckin’ boat.”
“Which bloody island,” said Big Trainers.
“How do I know. We stayed in the hotel all the time.”
“You could’ve done that in Blackpool,” said Ginger.
“It rains in Blackpool,” she said “and I don’t like donkeys.”
“Choose your friends more carefully then,” said Big Trainers.
“It’s near Montenegro too and Macedonia. Never ‘eard of ‘em. Do people live there?” she said.
“No,” said Ginger, “they’re big nature reserves, full of endangered species.”
“Ithaca?” said Smiler.
“What?” she said.
“Santorini?” said Ginger.
“What you on about?”
“Mykonos,” said Smiler.
“Why don’t they say somethin’?” she said.
“Naxos?” said Big Trainers.
“What they doin’ ‘ere, anyway?”
“Kythnos?” said Ginger.
“Learning the language,” said Smiler.
“Poros?” said Ginger.
“They won’t learn much if they don’t speak.”
“Lefkada?” said Big Trainers.
“What you talkin’ about?” she said.
“Kos, Zakynthos, Paros?” said Smiler.
“Greece,” she shouted, “it was fuckin’ Greece.”
“Don’t swear,” said Ginger, “we don’t want ‘em to go back to Tirana effing and blinding. They’ll think we Brits are all vulgar and ignorant.”
There was crush of pupils on the corridors when the bell sounded to summon them to registration. It wasn’t at all like Clapforth. It was modern. There were no stone mullions or stained-glass windows, no statues of former luminaries, no staircases Henry VIII might have climbed, no vaulted ceilings, no priests and most alarming and illuminating, there were girls. Tony and Rob had been at primary school with girls, but they were children and as boys still to blossom they paid them scant attention. These girls were women. The younger ones still had something of unselfconscious childhood about them, but for the most part they were aware. They carried themselves as if they had explosives beneath their uniforms. They wanted to be looked at and they knew they were. Beauty being by definition rare, not many were beautiful but they almost all had that bloom of youth, the promise of life itself, of reproduction which could make even the plainest features at least fleetingly attractive. Rob could look at nothing else.
“Did you see her?” he said under his breath to Tony, “she looked about twenty-one.”
“How can she be twenty-one? Shut up, we’re not supposed to speak English.”
“I know, but it’s amazing. There are hundreds of them. How does anyone get any work done?”
They turned off the main corridor to mount the stairs to their minders’ form-room to see a slender beauty of fourteen, tall, blonde, poised, graceful, with blue eyes around which her face seemed constructed, descending. Her white socks were pulled up to her knees. Her black skirt left a tantalising thirty- centimetre space. She glided down and past them and as she passed gave Rob a glance and a smile.
“Wowser,” he said, “did you see what I just saw?”
“Sshh. You’ll get us noticed.”
“She fancies me.”
“She only saw you for two seconds.”
“Two seconds is enough. Oh, this place is sick. I’m going to like it here.”
The form tutor was Ms Edmondson. She was thirty, brisk and organised. She wore a white blouse and a black waistcoat.
“Maybe she’s going to play snooker,” Rob whispered to Tony.
Busy and intent, she had about her that lack of centredness characteristic of people driven by external demands. Her hair was an indeterminate shade between brown and ginger and hung lank at either side of her tensed face. She tried to bring the class to order by exerting her voice and calling on boys and girls by name, but was obviously accustomed to having to fight for the pupils’ attention.
“I wonder which form she’s in?” said Rob to Tony.
“I need to find out. She’s obviously nuts about me.”
“You’re obviously nuts. Be quiet.”
Ms Edmondson looked quizzically at the pair.
“Dylan,” she called, “are these your visitors?”
“Yes, miss,” said Big Trainers.
“I think you’d better introduce me, don’t you?”
“Have you found the names?” whispered Big Trainers to Ginger.
“Lesh and Ndrek,” he replied.
The five of them approached her desk.
“These are my cousins, miss,” said Ginger. “Lesh and Ndrek from Albania. They’re here to improve their English. I wondered if they could sit in on my lessons for a couple of days.”
“Albania,” she said, “miredita,” and she held out her hand.
Tony shook it and smiled. Rob shook it and smiled.
“Miredita,” she repeated.
The two of them smiled and nodded.
“They’re not every communicative are they?”
“They only know a few words of English, miss.”
“But I said hello in Albanian.”
“Ah yes,” said Ginger. “I suppose you’ve visited Albania, miss.”
“Yes, I went there last summer as part of my cycling tour of the Balkans.”
“North or south?” said Ginger.
“North,” she said.
“Ah, well, that’s it you see. In the north they speak Gheg but in the south they speak Tosk. That’s why they don’t understand.”
“But “hello” is a common greeting across the whole of the country.”
“It’ll be your accent, miss,” said Smiler.
“Yeah,” said Big Trainers, “they’re very sensitive to accent, the Albanians.”
“We’ll have to ask Mrs Poulter if they can stay. There will be health and safety implications.”
“No need to bother about that, miss,” said Ginger, “they’re extremely safety conscious.”
“Yes, and as you can see,” said Big Trainers, “they’re perfectly healthy.”
“I can’t say yes without speaking to Mrs Poulter. They can come with me to her office.”
“We’ll come too, miss.”
“It doesn’t need three of you.”
“I’ll come, miss. They’re my cousins,” said Ginger.
While the teacher took the register and sorted out her materials, Ginger consulted his i-phone beneath the desk.
“If Poulter asks you anything,” he said to Tony and Rob, “just say nuk e di.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you telling us to say something you don’t know the meaning of?”
“No, it means, I don’t know.”
“We can’t answer that to everything,” said Tony.
He swiped his screen.
“Say nuk e kuptoj.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I don’t understand.”
“What if Edmondson speaks to us in Albanian?”
“She won’t know much,” said Smiler.
Mrs Poulter’s office was on the staff corridor. Ms Edmondson knocked, went in and shut the door.
“What was it again?” said Tony.
“Nuk e kuptoj,” said Rob.
No sooner had he spoken than the beautiful girl appeared at the end of the corridor, walked past them, slipped a register into the pigeon holes suspended on the opposite wall and retracing her steps, smiled at Rob once more.
“See,” he said to Tony, “she can’t resist me.”
“She smiles at you because you’re ogling her like a brainless loon,” said Tony.
“That’s your theory, I prefer my own.”
They were admitted. Mrs Poulter was a very straight-backed woman in a smart grey suit, with impeccably brushed grey hair and glasses half way down her nose.
“Miredita,” she said holding out her hand, “I hope I’ve pronounced it correctly.”
The boys shook her hand and said nothing.
“Ms Edmondson tells me you’re visitors from Albania. We’re always happy to welcome people from other countries. We’re most glad to have you. I believe you intend to stay for two days. Is that right?”
“That’s right,” said Ginger.
“Dy dite?” said Ms Edmondson, smiling at Tony and Rob.
“Nuk e kuptoj,” said Rob.
“What does he say?” said Mrs Poulter.
“He doesn’t understand.”
“They speak Tosk, you see,” said Ginger. “Ms Edmondson knows a few words in Gheg.”
“Where are you living?” said Mrs Poulter.
“With me?” said Ginger.
“That’s very generous of you,” said Mrs Poulter.
“A jeni te rehatshem?” said Ms Edmondson.
“Nuk e kuptoji,” said Tony.
“What did you ask?” said Mrs Poulter.
“If they were comfortable.”
“Did he say he didn’t know?”
“They don’t get a word of Gheg,” said Ginger.
The first lesson was Physics with Mr Leach. They sat at the back bench as he explained the experiment but Rob paid no attention because at the bench in front of him sat The Beautiful Girl From The Stairs.
“Is she good at Physics?” he asked Big Trainers.
“She’s brilliant at everything,” said Ginger.
“What’s her name?”
“Jane,” said Smiler.
Her hearing must have been acute, because at the whisper she turned to look. Rob smiled, a big idiotic smile, as if he was about to have his picture taken at the fun fair. She offered, in return, an expression which might have made the Mona Lisa’s exorbitant. Just at that moment, a copy of the Physics text book flew across the room and bonked a big girl with glasses on the side of the head. She rubbed the site, swore, stood up, grabbed the volume and flung it back at the boy who’d launched it.
“Sit down, Linda,” called the teacher.
The lad, who had ducked to avoid being clattered by the hundred and fifty pages of science he knew nothing about, gathered the tome from the floor and drew back his arm.
“Kyle, bring that book here,” said Mr Leach.
“She threw it at me,” said the boy, still set to launch another assault.
“I don’t care, bring it here.”
“He threw it at me, sir,” said Linda. “He’s a psycho. He should be locked up.”
“Don’t call me a fuckin’ psycho,” said Kyle, “you ugly bitch.”
“Bring it here, now,” said the beleaguered scientist.
“She called me a psycho,”said Kyle.
“He called me an ugly bitch. Will you tell him, sir?”
“Kyle, I’m going to count to ten…”
“Is that as far as you can get?” said Kyle.
The class, enjoying the spectacle and glad the hard matter of thinking about forces, electricity, equations, resistance, amps, volts, bodies wholly or partially immersed in liquids, equal and opposite reactions was set aside for a few minutes, and if Kyle was on form, perhaps for the whole lesson, emitted a gentle, collective laugh.
“I’m not going to tell you again, Kyle.”
“Can I throw the book then, sir?”
“Bring that book here, right now.”
“You’ve just told me again, sir.”
“Send him out, sir. He’s not right in the head.”
“Yeah, send him out, sir,” called another girl.
There developed a chorus of requests that the boy be put out of the room, which quickly transmogrified into a chant as they banged on their desks:
“Send him out. Send him out.”
“Stop that. Stop that, noise. Stop it now or I’ll send for Mr Cornelius.”
The dread name brought a modicum of order. Cornelius was the bull-necked Assistant Head whose brief was discipline. Most pupils feared him because he had the power to bring their parents in, to send them home, to suspend them, to exclude them, and because he had no neck. Kyle didn’t fear him, however, because his dad had come into school and threatened him. Kyle had been taken out of Mr Leach’s lessons, Ms White’s classes and Mrs Kirk’s careers sessions. Isolated and given work, he complained. His dad arrived. The school hadn’t followed protocol to the letter. The boy was readmitted. Kyle didn’t fear any disapprobation.
“We’ll do things democratically,” said Mr Leach over the still impossible disturbance. “All those who think Kyle should be sent out, raise your hands.”
Everyone, except Kyle’s two accomplices, who didn’t want a kicking at break time, raised their hands.
“They can’t vote,” said Kyle, pointing to Tony and Rob, “they’re foreign.”
“They may be foreign, but they’re part of the class so they have the same rights as everyone else,” said Mr Leach.
“I’m not havin’ them foreigners tell me what I can do,” said Kyle.
“At least they don’t throw books at people,” said Linda.
“Kyle,”said Mr Leach, “we’ve had the vote. That’s democracy. Now leave.”
“I’m not leavin’ if them two are allowed to vote. They don’t even speak English.”
“Nor do you,” said Linda.
“Kyle, leave now or I shall call for Mr Cornelius.”
“I’m not goin’ nowhere. They shouldn’t even be in this class. They should stay in their own country.”
Mr Leach took out his mobile, called for Mr Cornelius, who arrived two minutes later, puffed from galloping up the stairs and neckless as ever. He led Kyle out of the room and as they went the disorder followed them. The pupils attended to the white board. Mr Leach wrote his equation. They copied it into their books.
At break, Rob insisted they follow Jane and her friends.
“This place is amazing,” he said, “riots in the classroom and beautiful girls to get to know in between.”
“I don’t think she speaks Albanian,” said Ginger.
“We can use the translator,” said Rob.
“You’ll not get far like that,” said Tony.
“Anyway, there’s no point speaking to her, she’s spoken for,” said Smiler.
As they turned the corner by the leisure centre, they saw Jane and her two friends combine with a little huddle of Year 11 boys. The tallest was a broad lad with not much more neck than Mr Cornelius, dark hair shaven at the back and sides and brushed into a gelled quiff and a sneering little smile that at once made Tony think of Strickland.
“That’s her boyfriend,” said Ginger
“Grant,” said Big Trainers.
“Captain of rugby,” said Smiler.
“And cricket,” said Ginger.
“And football,” said Big Trainers.
“Cross country champion,” said Ginger.
“And long jump,” said Smile.
“And hundred metres,” said Big Trainers.
“And pole vault.”
“And high jump.”
“I bet he can’t play guitar,” said Rob.
“She plays the clarinet,” said Ginger.
“And the piano,” said Smiler.
“And sings,” said Big Trainers.
Though Jane was the most beautiful girl he’d seen on his first day, she wasn’t by any means the only one. Rob had begun to notice that most girls possessed some small charm, some signal of youth and nubility which made them attractive. He was playing his guitar while Tony made cheese on toast in the kitchen. The strangeness of Clapforth struck him. Life was deader without members of the opposite sex. The place might be a first-rate production-line for exam results and Oxbridge applications, but the absence of the uplifting fact of difference made it a morgue.
“And our parents paid money to send us there,” he said as he bit into his wedge of toast.
“At least there aren’t riots in the classroom,” said Tony.
“It was fun.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t learn much Physics.”
“But we learnt something else.”
“People like Kyle are real and we have to deal with them.”
“He should be expelled.”
“What would he do then?”
“How do I know?”
“Shoplifting all day, or a town centre rat.”
“Then he’d be sent to prison.”
“What would he do then?”
“Mend his ways.”
“Smoke cannabis all day and get tips from other inmates.”
“Why are you taking his side all of a sudden?”
“He’s screwed up.”
“That’s not our fault?”
“Whose fault is it?”
“His family, I suppose.”
“Look at ours.”
“His family might not have any money.”
“So? One of my friends at my previous school came from a poor family but he didn’t behave like that?”
“Tomorrow I’m taking my guitar.”
“To impress the girls.”
“The girl, you mean.”
“What does she see in that poseur?”
“You’d be better off training for the long jump.”
“She’d be better off listening to my chord sequences.”
There was a noise.
“What was that?” said Rob.
“Sounds like a car.”
“Look out the window. It might be the cops.”
They hurried to the front room. On the gravel were parked a Bentley Bentayga and a Maserati Gran Cabrio. Four men were walking towards the front door. A six feet four, blonde, slender bloke of about fifty, wearing dark glasses, a black leather jacket and jeans; a short, fat, dark specimen in a shiny suit with a cigar in his mouth; a muscle-bound gorilla in a t-shirt and crop pants whose legs, arms and face were covered in tattoos; and a respectable looking chap in a smart, dark blue suit, a blue and white striped shirt and a red tie, whose highly-polished black Loakes caught the sunlight.
“Shit,” said Rob, “let’s get out of here.”
“Upstairs,” said Tony, “we’ll hide till they’re gone.”
The scurried to a bedroom. Rob shut the door.
“Leave it open,” whispered Tony, “so we can hear.”
They heard the footsteps in the hallway.
“They’ll find the cheese on toast,” said Rob.
“We’re done for.”
“And my guitar.”
“Let’s hope they’re musical.”
Behind the door, side by side, in silent terror they strained to hear.
“Someone’s been ‘ere, boss.”
“Them kids again.”