Two things: the bottle smashing and the blackbird launching from my shoulder to the branches above.
I remember bits from last night, a night ghosting on a Rotherwick Park bench, bottle in hand, listening to old hits: A Fox Slaying the Rabbit, Mouse Scuttling through Leaves, Horses in the Field… Owls. When I’ve thought about that, I am ready to sit up (one cannot lie on a bench and be taken seriously). Unstiffening on the bench planks, I rub feeling back into my arm. Somewhere in the flesh, a valve floods in fresh agony and I ride out the pins and needles. The wax coat draped over me perspires beads of dew. It slides off me with a clud of pocketgoods and wine-glass shintle. It’s early: I can’t fit four outreaching knuckles under the sun. Primrose weather. Grass-cut flavours backed by robin song. Climatics that encourage those who live in the country to rise early and walk from dream to dream.
I piss behind a tree. There is a white inkblot of birdshit on my left shoulder, but that’s fine.
A red disk rises through cricket-pitch mist. The silver Dog Star jigs like a deep-sea lure and a dollar moon slots where the sun will set over the clubhouse. The Old Man used to keep score on metal tablets, in increments of one and four and sometimes six. Far away Howzats! Applause and the thunk of willow. Mum’s sandwiches, pink cupcakes and vats of tea steaming into mist. Mist that burns away.
I toothbrush, spit blood on the grass, then wipe my lips on the inside of my t-shirt and throw these things away in the bin by the play park.
There is food in the backpack: a flattened cheese pasty and slept-on crisps, a perfect bar of purple chocolate, two hip flasks and cheap Merlot. I throw the pasty and the crisps on the grass for the animals and open the wine and drink a little. Red sun, wine, blood, uniforms, bricks. A perfect day for it. For the I Am.
“There you are!”
Quentin’s parked outside the school. He climbs out of that silly old yellow Bug, a city car, his belly swinging in a yellow, crocodile polo-shirt, tucked into the belt line of pastel chinos. Slams the door, gives me the once over, and hits me with his best: “You look like a noir bum.”
“A Rummy,” he says. “Is that shit on your shoulder? Sleep in a hedge again?”
“Hi Q. A park bench, actually.”
I take a good look at the little, brick school: “Any trouble finding this place?”
“Yes. It’s in the middle of bloody nowhere! Now get in the car. I want it looking like I drove you here. People are coming!”
I open the door and get in.
Then I look at his munchy face up close, a pinkish orbiculate equatored by spectacles that mediate his eyesight for driving. His PR urges fascinate and surprise me: the nervous self-awareness, the need for appearance. A bunch of what ifs? squished, spaghetti-like, into a man.
“Q, why hide the truth?”
He goggles me: “Because, Swampy, it’s fucking weird!”
“I wonder what happened to Swampy?” I say, and get no reply.
I study the car’s console, vaguely recognise it. Fiddle with the DAB and find a station playing music he hates, Loud Gregorian chanting: Adoremus in aeternum sanctissimum sacramentum! I hate it too but it’s funny.
“Charming,” he says. “One more thing.” He hands me a folder with my notes inside and a newsagent’s card in open envelope. My name is on it in cursive black ballpoint and there’s an obscene photograph on the front; it is signed on the inside: H.B. Old Man. Q & fam.
I inspect myself in the shade’s tiny mirror. Binocular eyeholes of petrol-shine. Hurricaned face. Thick untrammelled beard. Wispy head. Everything rusty and twisted. Yep – bench-drunk wino. I wouldn’t allow me into a school.
“Welcome, welcome!” Marty Squires, the Headmaster, meets us in Reception. “Are you… well?”
He questions my crumpled clothes, in which I slept, the fading tattoos, the smell of wine and earth. He is young and thin, like a runner, bearing a reddish glow of absorption in his work.
I look around. I recognise much. “The red doors look the same.”
“When were you here?”
“‘87 to ‘93.”
“Ah. I’m maintaining the traditional look.”
He avoids the word old.
Children arrive. File past us. Squires greets hand-holding parents. They seem so young: the Mums and Dads apple-cheeked, white-toothed, clean and proper and radiant. Their miniatures are a different species: they make the same babbles and wear the same red tops with the ‘WW’ logo as the kinder in a 1930s tourist ad. I wonder which one of these is the face spitting Alan B.? And which one is me?
It is their summer holiday tomorrow. Six sacred weeks away from education and teachers and other pupils. I never believed the others when they said they were bored and missed school. After growing up with them, I believed it now.
“I read your transcript,” says Squires. “Some of it might go over their heads.”
Quentin agrees, silently casting me in doubt.
Each class files into the dining hall – where they forced me to eat boiled peas till I puked – then each child receives a hymn book and sits cross-legged on the floor. I never understood why they made us sit so uncomfortably to receive the wisdom of God. Even in church you get a seat.
Squires manhandles a Yamaha keyboard, cranks out godly tunes, and then summons a hymn. When many small hands shuffle the Come & Praise, they sing Give Me Joy In My Heart, after which, Squires reads from the Old Testament – a formulaic story with a God-guided wayward hero and penitent ending – after which, I’m up.
“We give thanks to have with us today, former Whitewater pupil…”
Quentin pushes me in front of the projected words ‘Because it’s there’.
“Ahem.” A hundred glossy cherubim gape at me. No pressure. “George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were the first people to climb Mount Everest,” I say. “They died but they did it. Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb the mountain. He said: ‘Because it’s there’.”
I point to a wall-size poster of the British Isles.
“I ran nine hundred miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats.”
Photos of monuments and mountains roll by on the screen.
“Because I was tired of being told ‘no you can’t’. Remember, when someone says ‘no you can’t’, yes, you can.”
The photos settle on the one of a young, fit me under the famous sign, at the end.
“To run the length of the British Isles, you must endure.”
I see a raised hand.
“Daddy says it’s called the Yuk!” says a boy at the back.
Squires leans across, whispering, “He means the UK.”
“We had a disagreement about that a long time ago and we thought it best to call the ‘Yuk’ by its old name: the British Isles.”
“So that Scotland could have the top bit, England had the middle and the bottom, Wales got the left bit, and Ireland got the bit across the sea.”
Next, a heroic photo bettered by none: HMS Endurance, resembling a dying beast caught in the blackest night, furled sails on crucified yardarms and all her shivering timbers forlorn white.
I tell them about Shackleton and the struggle on the ice, how they rowed eight hundred miles to Elephant Island and endured their way home to face the horrors of a war. The children are quietly spellbound by the story of brave explorers risking their lives in a frozen world. Any young lives I can save from what’s coming – to give them the spark I never had, that was crushed out of me on that floor, to save even one life – will make my seventy years worthwhile.
The car jerks under Quentin’s weight.
“You have just made the lives of those poor parents hell for the next six weeks. No Timothy, you can’t jump out of the tree! Yes Mummy, I can! Goodness sake!”
The playground is full of laughter. Hope.
Q nudges me in the arm. “Fancy a pint?”
“No thanks. I’m going for a walk.”
“The Old Place.”
Quentin regards me above his driving lenses: “I’m supposed to be at The Bloomsbury for dinner. Hilary Junior will be there. J.K. will be there. Fancy joining?”
I shake my head.
“Rumour has it, the Poet Laureate might pop in…”
“The Booker Prize shortlistees?”
Q gives me his most critical eyebrow. “Any chance you could hurry up with that manuscript you’ve been promising?”
“Sent it you.”
“Ah!” He gets out his thingy and checks messages. Takes his time. Snorts. “No. Wait – no. Can’t see it.”
“I mailed it, you dunce.”
He snorts so hard that snot froths his nostrils. “Mailed? What the fuck for?”
“Wrote it in longhand too.”
“Yeah. Get your secretary to type it up. And proof it too, while you’re at it.”
“You lazy, selfish shit.”
The kissing gate sings like it used to. The footpath cuts up ripe wheat. Flints redder than dragon eggs. Frog Lane smudged under haze. Maize hangs heavy either side. A joint between fields and road extended and re-forged, the Old Place protected by corn and coppice. An artist’s impression of a country house. A child’s idea of home. Reminds me very much of Cézanne’s The Hanged Man’s House.
My wife persuaded me to stop travelling here on a whim. And she would urge me to leave, if she were here. But she’s not here.
A black nose snorts on my leg. Then, a woman’s voice:
“Are you okay? What happened?”
I feel foolish, turn away to swallow the sobs and hide my face in the crook of my arm.
“Are you ill?”
Her dog licks my toe cap.
“Jethro, stop that!”
She’s sixty-something: hardened face of countryside gentry; the stoic type, always in a go-gettem mood; drinks warm ale from London Pride glasses, in pubs that survive on Morris Dancing and Range Rovers; chairs WI meetings; edits the village newsletter; pheasant feather in hat.
I tell her, “I used to live here.”
“Oh!” she says. “Well, that’s my house!”
Jinnie opens the front door.
Eric? I’ve found a guest!”
She sits me down at the kitchen table, introduces me. Her husband is a retired judge from The City.
We talk trivialities: my biography, theirs, the weather. Jinnie makes tea in a pot and I smooth the dog’s big, black head. He knows. Eric retrieves a yellowing hardback from his study, Cheat Code, something I’d written two decades ago, when I was in my prime and Q was a skinny hotshot fresh out of Oxford. He offers me a golden wide-nib. “Do you mind?”
I sign it. With my normal signature, not the one I use for book signings. They smile.
I recognise fragments: the utility room worktop under which their dog sleeps, as ours did; the shape of rooms; shadows. Architectural memories resistant to paint.
“Sorry to do this to you. I just had to come back.”
“Absolutely fine,” says Eric, who had been working on his memoir in his study, my father’s office.
“How long have you lived here?” I ask.
“Since ‘42,” he says. He looks awfully young for a judge. And regular, not like I’d imagine. The only betrayal is his procedural pronunciation. “Ten years. When did you live here?”
“1986 to 2003. My folks sold it for eight-fifty. The new owners sold it in 2019 for one point four million. Might I ask, it’s really none of my business but, how much did you pay?”
“We bought it from the family who bought it from them. Two mil.”
Two mil? I had lived in a two mil house. What would it be worth in fifty years? Ten mil? Twenty?
“My room was the one above the kitchen.”
“It’s a spare room,” says Eric. “Would you like to have a look?”
Empty furniture and vacant air, I didn’t need to see that.
“No, thank you, but I would like to walk around the garden before I leave.”
Eric slides open the patio doors to solitude, birdsong.
“This patio used to be a pond,” I say. “We kept the little fish here, the ones unsuited for the big pond.”
The lawn is freshly mown, smells of ghosts.
A hedge grown from saplings protects the back garden from the lane. Mum’s shed was down the end. We built ingenious thingumabobs there. All bulldozed neatly away.
An oak that used to shade the shed is still here, spared, perhaps, due to its perfect shape.
They felled the orchard: the fruiting earth haircut green.
I’m drawn to the spot where a rose bed used to bloom over four unmarked graves. Our little ones, who loved this garden.
I tell them, “I loved living here. Growing up here. It was the best possible start in life. I was so lucky… so fortunate. I always consider this Old Place to be my home.”
Jinnie, next to Eric, says: “I can see why.”
I am here and they are here – two shadows pointing at me while Jethro runs amok in a distant flower bed.
“A long time ago my Grandmother gave me a cheat code. She said: ‘Don’t get old.’ I’m seventy today.”
Jinnie says, “Oh, many happy returns!”
“If you had phoned ahead we could have organised something for you,” Eric says, which strikes me as a kind sentiment.
“But now I’m old. A heart attack didn’t spare me. Getting old was a mistake. Distraction after distraction… So, here’s to you two and Jethro the dog, to my wife – rest her soul – to my folks, and to the Old Place. Cheers.”
I reach for the other hip flask, unscrew the top and take a slug.
“This really does taste disgusting,” I say, wiping my mouth on the inside of my t-shirt. “Like prison mouthwash.”
Eric says, “Scotch?”
“I found a poppy field.”
“Oh?” says Jinnie. “Poppy field?”
“Yes. Afghan poppies. They grow them here. A cash crop. You blend the pods, soak them in vodka for half an hour and drain it through muslin. Easy enough.” I take another hit, gag, but keep it down.
Eric says, “Maybe you shouldn’t.”
I drain it and drop it.
“I’m sorry to do this to you.”
The first pulse bends my knees, and then my thighs. My diaphragm relaxes. Then, it reaches my head, like a hand reaching up my neck and squeezing the back of my brain from the inside.
There’s more talk, but I don’t hear it.
Jinnie and Eric seem far away as if through a monocular.
One runs into the house.
The other kneels.
Finger on pulse.
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