Authors: A. L Kennedy
Which is confusing.
Dutch sounds like Scotch, but Scotch is a drink and Scottish is a person, so the boy is not Scotch â the boy's mother and father are quite sure about that. They are thoroughly Scottish in every way.
If he says he is Scotch he will be wrong.
If he laughs too out-loud he will be wrong.
If he spoons his soup towards himself he will be wrong.
It would be equally wrong for the boy to keep a hard want burning at his heart, a need to draw in calamity and knocks.
He does it anyway.
And now he has a
of his own. He holds it like a smile poured in under his hair.
The boy pictures his brain as newly alert and changed to a glistening mass, a larger cousin of the oyster his grandfather made him eat last summer â told him it was living, that it would forage and thrive beneath his skin and scour him out into a better health. He is sure the accident has roused his oyster-mind and that it is currently flexing, searching forward with an appetite he admires. He hopes it has decided to look for his future, to bring it back and show him the ways it could be.
The boy is not alarmed when some kind of effort, some kind of striving, presses his eyelids unstoppably shut and sets the night running and swinging and plunging him to sleep. He leaves himself and travels.
He remembers â dreams and remembers â the other time he saw his father cry. His daddy had been singing: head back and the words there, red and wet in the mouth and, at the end of them, a weeping.
The boy's manhood and contentment, he feels, will be built in evenings when he is grown and sings, and there are men about him and hugs which cuff his skull and magnificent griefs, such marvellous injuries to shape him and let him rage. These will be hurts he can be proud of, historic and honourable.
Then he pictures his mother's table, her dining-room table on which he must not ever lean his elbows during meals. It shines oddly, ripples and draws his attention to stand beside it and peer down. Laid out along the mahogany he sees his older body, naked and washed. The boy studies his wish to be solid, short-bearded, complete, and to have impressive arms with one tattoo â a little flag with writing underneath it, which he cannot read, but realises is important. His parts which are meant to be secret remain as he knows them â
a little boy's mickey, always
â and then fade â
. Somehow, he spills away.
It seems a proper punishment that when his parts are gone they haunt him more than ever. They sting.
And the boy then sees himself opened like a book while hands dig out the truth of him, work wrist-deep, and find a rifle and a chanter, the shine of a plough, forgetfulness twice-distilled, broom flowers and roses, a lobster upended and balanced on its claws, a woman's hair dragged from its scalp and thick as jute, a righteous and clever tawse, a burning rivet and a burning brand and a burning cross and a burning word, a collar the colour of blood, a whale bone carved with a ship and on the ship a man who travels, who will scour the world, burn it, bleed it, thieve it out and suffer as he steps, heavy and mad as horses, and held in his hand is a heart, a sleeping heart, a hunted heart, a slave heart, a heart like a hole through to nowhere that he lifts above his head.
He waves to the boy and the boy waves back.
This waving troubles the boy â it shivers him and makes him rock.
He is seasick as he rises up into the ward, turns conscious, hears the tiny panting of the pressure cuff as it inflates. His arm is throbbing and troubles him.
âI said hold still. You can do that, can't you?' The nurse, another nurse, whispering. âYou're a big boy. Can't you do what you're told?'
This will be a predictable element of his recovery. Every three hours, night and day, someone will come to measure the condition of his blood, put the chill of a thermometer under his tongue.
âDon't bite it.'
For the boy this will be wearying and unheroic.
Tomorrow afternoon his mother will arrive and sit next to his bed with a new copy of
and, in a paper bag, the
annual he was not allowed for Christmas, because it is full of rough talk and ways in which nobody decent should behave. His father will not visit, but will sit in the parked car outside and listen to football reports on the radio â this will be because the smell of hospitals makes him sick. He will send his best. If he knew about the
annual then he would not.
The boy will take his comics and his mother's kiss on his forehead and on the one of his cheeks that is nearest to her. He will think he doesn't want to read, because he suspects reading might be difficult, but he won't say that, for fear of being rude. He will not know what to do when he sees that she is very sad about him, and so he will pretend that his head hurts more than it does and she will nod a lot and put a bottle of Lucozade wrapped in crinkling yellow stuff on the bedside cabinet which is his while he is here and then she will stand up and he will suddenly regret that she is leaving.
Once he is alone he will still have the scent of her against his skin. And he will catch the only true hint he'll ever get from his future â that there will be times when that exact perfume strikes him, makes him open like a book and ask to be hurt by strangers until he cannot think. This doesn't unsettle him, is merely strange. He assumes it is the first of many insights and, sitting up in bed â little boy, little mickey â he is happy. The crack to his skull has left him brilliant with wishes, unsteadied by apparently too many opening paths towards glories. He has been thoroughly punished in advance and this means that his powers will be remarkable.
MARK HAD NEVER
thought he'd consider throwing himself under a train. Turned out he was wrong.
Not for the first time.
Cheap shot, I realise, but I always do take the cheap shot. I wouldn't really be me without it.
But I am me and I have been â with assistance â very badly wrong. Repeatedly.
At least the weather was okay. Hot, in fact: the light bleaching and withering down at everyone while they waited on a platform which wasn't their platform at a station they shouldn't have reached. This was not on the way to anywhere anybody had meant to be and apparently no services ever stopped here. It didn't even seem to be a place for people, rather for goods, repairs in sidings, arcane mechanical processes. Mark could smell ageing oil and traces of coal dust. There was a sense beyond that of gap sites, bomb sites, failed reconstructions after the war.
The last world war, not the current succession of little wash-and-goes.
He found himself reminded of his childhood, the shoddy old home town and his lovingly rehearsed escapes therefrom.
And he had escaped, of course, quite quickly. Clever youngsters still could then and he was clever: full grant to go and play at studying in a mediocre, but blessedly far-removed university. He didn't look back.
And as for going back, turning up again â nobody would have thanked me for trying that. Best to do all concerned the big, merciful favour and disappear.
He now had a presentable London postcode, loft extension, Polish au pair with a marine-biology degree â or zoology, something like that â and the ability to amplify his griefs at the hands of a rail network in crisis by writing about them â
yet more suffering imposed on blameless middle classes
â for a national daily paper. But none of his life's securities meant that he wasn't still ready to doubt the station signs. His current home and circumstances felt immediately unconvincing when he got stressed. There'd be this creep of ridiculous suspicion: maybe he wasn't where he thought, maybe over the bridge would be that other, original shithole and his place in it waiting for him, irrevocable. He'd spin on his heel and here would be Mum in the loud-walled sitting room catching a breather before tea, hands worried nonetheless with knitting, or sewing, or Christ knew what â and odd, sweet ham for sandwiches, stuff you got out of a tin â and his dad back from the garage â and smoking on buses and trains, and ciggies being advertised on telly â ciggies everywhere â and cheap pullovers that sparked up blue with static when you peeled them off fast in the dark. You'd never get girls with a pullover like that.
Not with a pullover at all. Not to a satisfactory degree.
He was out, though, truly long gone and free and he hadn't even once been forced, for professional reasons, to offer deferential and trustworthy smiles to strangers with broken cars and he didn't need a girl, he had a wife.
I'm just stuck here at the moment, where nothing stops. It really does â nothing stays here and you have to breathe it in. I am inhaling the stink of nothing.
His imagination bridled before it could fully recall the scent of his own skin on Sunday mornings: shifting the covers and catching that mustiness, tiredness. He smelled of nothing. It was on him.
A long lie and a touch of sweat and Pauline already virtuously about in the garden, or the kitchen, or her church.
I always do think of it as her personal church, because she does, and who am I to disagree?
But there he would be, stagnant and upstairs and holding on around an hour, or maybe two, of peace.
Mark was very fond of peace. Increasingly.
Pauline was less inclined towards the tranquil.
Mercurial. Why I married her. I'm sure. At least partly that.
That and she thought she was pregnant. Turned out she was wrong. It's a trait we share, our fondness for the wrong.
But I did also love the way she could kick off and stay off, generate these heartfelt torrents of fury. She has retained the capacity to be magnificent in that area and I continue to admire it.
I truly do.
It was plain that she wanted a row at the moment, was quietly and almost sexily brooding on the words she might say, were she not surrounded by a mass of other non-travelling travellers. She'd ask him again â rhetorical question â why he couldn't have driven them over from London and right to the arse-end of Wales for no very good reason, other than to let her see her friends. She got this urge, once a year or so, to wear spotless wellingtons and padded faux-country coats with her friends, to drink red wine until it stained her mouth to an injury, also with her friends, to exert a vague authority over a herd of pye-dog children â long-haired and ill-mannered and airily illiterate â with her continual bloody friends who had produced said children without considering that parenthood would mean being broke and staying in the arse-end of Wales, while acting as if it was Italy and wandering hunch-backed streets in a migraine of drizzle.
He couldn't have driven. It would have made him tired. Correction, it would have made him exhausted â there and back would have made him dead. This last week had wiped him out. He'd been a wreck by Wednesday, Kempson ranting and condemning them to additional white nights, threatening more redundancies while they sorted out urgent copy to go with urgent tits.
This week's tits were wronged and glazed with anguish, always a favourite. They were classy tits, married to a Special Adviser tits, the prime minister's full confidence still placed in their husband tits, late of Cheltenham Ladies' College and rumours of early spliffs and precocious rapacities tits. They'd probably got an opinion on Gypsies, too. Or tax-avoidance. Austerity. The future of the euro. Frankly tragic that they had no power of speech. Infinitely disappointing that their owner did.
So no stamina left for long-haul chauffeuring.
Sorry that you had your precious break, but now its even more precious afterglow has been destroyed by my boorish insistence on not having a heart attack.
So very sorry indeed.
An apology should have been unnecessary in a friendly world, but was offered in any case. The world wasn't friendly.
The usual rolling hiss. The sound of my head: like a detuned radio, or the drag of an old-time needle over old-time vinyl at the end of the record, once the music's stopped.
Pauline should have known better than to ask. She was fully aware of Mark's persistent, historic aversion to motor vehicles.
Grew up with five petrol-head brothers, didn't I?
What sensible parent has that many kids? That many sons? That many of anything?
Mark had been the late and tender afterthought, putting an end to the line. No more soft-pawed fighting and solemnly blue jokes to share with Dad as if they were presents from an oncoming life.
Don't tell your mother, and having a laugh and sipping from a fag round the back, leaned against the wall â all the Burroughs boys together.
He'd pretty much ruined things, because from the outset Mark had been a poor fit with his father and the boys. He'd known that he made them uncomfortable: kind, but stilted and uneasy.
I didn't like what they liked.
While his siblings couldn't wait to get dirty, he had always hated engines, tinkering, manual tasks of every kind. He would, as an adult, abandon some type of large Renault because it was actually on fire. Not overheating, but wildly ablaze due to unforgivable negligence on his part. He'd left it in a lay-by, run away.
Wasn't even my car. Borrowed. And not returned.
If she'd known about this â it was before her time â he could imagine how Pauline would react, pronouncing the three syllables of
as only she could. She needn't be furious to make the word ring like a curse. Authentically injurious.
For now, she whipped a glance at him, gave it some strength. Mark was aware that the tall bloke in retro corduroy, or just very misguided corduroy, had read their little exchange â Pauline's threat, Mark's obeisance â and was smiling in response.