I'dgot myself a little post, high on a hill, from which I could see in all directions, North, South, East, and West. It was just an ordinary looking post made of clay and wattles and I lived alone there. It was a hut with four doors, one in each wall. It was a place where I sat and thought and waited. Sometimes I would go out and fetch water from a stream on the side of the hill. And sometimes I would fetch honey from the beehives. But most of the time I just waited.
He came upon me in the evening. It was my favourite hour. I liked, when the evening was coming on, to stand and look out over the valley at the trees waving darkly in the summer breeze and the quiet hills. That night, the sky was red. The plain lay wide and still and desolate before me. I could hear the stream. I could feel a shadow on my face. And I looked up. Later, newly weighed down, I walked off down the hill away from the hut, afraid, wondering at the new weight on me, unable to speak. I never went back there.
Debs is waiting for me at the gate. She's on her own. The only black girl in our year, she stands out. I walk up to her, she nods, and we both just stand there. After a few minutes of just standing there, I feel up to saying something.
"Hi," I say. I plan to say more and my mouth remains open for a bit until it becomes evident that nothing else is coming out. Then, I close it.
"Good opener," she says dryly.
"That's okay," she says. She's smiling. She's gauging my mood with a professional eye. The telling smile reveals what kind of mood she's in. I consider backing off.
"So," she starts up before I've had time to get clear.,"How are you?"
We take a moment's silence. The question forces me back into myself, forces me to think about my breakfast, about my weekend, about my life. I nearly hate her for it.
"Jesus Christ! I've told you not to ask me that!" I finally explode. And it's just me and her. The schoolyard no longer registers.
"I know," says Debs. "Vindictive, aren't I?"
"Why the vendetta?" I ask.
"Oh, no particular reason."
"Problems at home?"
"Was the starter-home raised again?"
We take another moment's silence to consider this. Debs's parents are committed to her saving up for a starter-home. God knows why. It's not as if they're likely to let her leave home 'till she's about thirty. But it's something they've become increasingly fanatical about after a double-length special of The Money Programme. Gasps of stormy boredom follow.
"Gotta take it out on someone," she replies glumly.
"I know," I say and look down at my shoes.
Some first-formers run past us screaming. Further down the road, older kids are getting out of cars at a discreet distance from the school. Their parents wave them shameless goodbyes.
"It could be worse," I say, but, lack conviction.
"How could it possibly be worse?"
"I don't know. It could though."
"Well, you could be living with Ted Bundy for example."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"Well, there you are then."
"Hm," she says. I clearly haven't convinced her.
"You could be living with Ted Bundy and your parents."
"Come on, Debs, you've got it good."
"'Course you have."
"Yeah, I s'ppose," she says and smiles frailly. We look out down the road again, away from the schoolyard. There's something helpless about the way our heads keep turning in that direction.
"Never mind, Debs. You'll be happy in your starter-home one day," I venture.
"Oh, fuck off!"
The first lesson of the day is maths. I've been trying not to think about it up till now. I amble into the classroom, sling my bag down on the nearest desk and am reasonably content when Dave and Mick get settled in the two chairs next to mine. They give me cover. Dave and Mick are tolerable creatures; thieving, acquisitive, covetous of bright, shiny objects, but generally all right. They're talking about last night down the pub. They always are.
"I got so pissed last night!" says Mick.
"Yeah, you were really out of it," says Dave, running a hand through his deliberately crested hair. "How much did you have?"
"More than you can take!"
"Fuck off! I could drink you under the table!"
Dave and Mick speak a primitive language. The basic symbols are: "drink a lot of beer" equals "very good"; "drink beer" equals "good"; "teetotal" equals "complete tosser."
Inventing a couple of heavy nights down the pub is usually enough to allay their suspicions. This done, we chatter away amicably, and by the time Mrs Braun arrives, we're just one big happy family.
Half an hour later, we're less merry. Mrs. Braun is writing on the board. Dave and Mick are flicking pencils around. Under the desks, feet scuffle. Occasionally, a knee bangs a desk or, more spectacularly, someone falls off their chair. To keep myself awake, I dutifully copy formulae off the blackboard into my exercise book, without really having the faintest idea what I'm writing. Then, like a wounded animal, I stumble out into the sunlight and walk around. I unwrap a sandwich.
Since direct sunlight troubles Debs, she'll probably be hard to find; holed up underground somewhere, no doubt. I decide to look for Olie instead. Olie makes no secret of his whereabouts at lunchtime. Over to one end of the school grounds, by the temporary huts, there's a patch of grass where a few girls mortify their bodies with autumn sunbathing.
This medieval practice involves lying on the grass and perhaps taking off their blazers if the temperature makes it above nought. Though considered a thoroughly decadent activity by the headmaster, a closer examination reveals it to be more like a physical endurance test. Here, Olie is a conspicuous figure, sitting cross-legged on top of one of the temporary huts and writing his English essay. Every so often, he picks up a pair of binoculars his father gave him, and takes a long look at those girls. He's not remotely subtle about it, but that's because he's got no shame. Not that it's entirely Olie's fault he's like this. As far as I can make out, he's just a disciple of his father, whose worldly philosophy includes such lines as, "Son, it's not how many girls you've got, it's making sure they don't find out!" Not a very noble dictum.
Occasionally, I've inquired if his mum's an equally enthusiastic advocate of the family code, but Olie doesn't really seem to understand the question. He seems to think of his mum as an old, familiar animal that shuffles about in hairpins and slippers and is unusually privileged to look after him. Perhaps he's right. I've never met his mother.
Anyway, since Olie's obviously busy with his essay and his ornithology, I go and look for Mick and Dave instead. One of the temporary huts backs up against the old school fence, but leaves enough space in between to create a dark, moist lair, the haunt of polecats and weasels. They will be there, I think. And they are there, smoking and guilty.
They always seem to be guilty about something. My approach startles them, but when they see it's only me, they relax and don't disappear over the fence.
"I'm going to get really pissed tonight!" says Mick awkwardly, head down, shoulders hunched. Dave laughs, coughs, keeps laughing. Mick coughs too. Both of them seem to have permanent colds.
"What, again?" says Dave. Then, turning to me, "Are you coming down the pub tonight?"
"Go on, it'll be good. Olie's coming. And so's Anna."
"Oh well, perhaps I will come."
"You sure you won't be missing any royal appointments or anything?" he asks slyly.
"Nothing to trouble yourself about, Dave!" Dave doesn't really know what to say now. He's good enough at thinking of witty analogies, but never really up to sustaining them. Two seconds of inspiration, that's all Dave is.
"Meet at my house at eight-thirty, yeah?" is his eventual, considered response.
"Alright," I say coolly.
I stand with them while they finish their cigarettes, leaning against the fence, shuffling my feet in the vegetative slush that lines the fence, inhaling the smell of decay. After a while, I float away from the cigarette smoke and pale faces and humming traffic and muted shouting, but go too far, so that, at first, there seems no way back. And now, my life no longer seems my own, but some quite separate thing which holds my attention. However, I don't stay there long, but force my way back in a bit of a panic. These disembodied journeys can get too exciting.
Dave's house is in the old quarter of the city, near the railway line. It's an especially grey area. Damp, grey washing droops over the balconies of shabby apartments. A little girl's dress is swinging rhythmically on a line as if it's just hanged itself. It's dark. There never seems to be much light round here whatever time of day it is. From inside one flat there are raised voices. "I thought I told you two to shut up!" A mother's voice. A plastic bag tails me down the street.
At first, I can't seem to find Dave's house. I spend ages wandering up and down the road looking for it. On the way, I pass an Indian man and his family who just stand there in their front garden, watching me. I don't know what they think I want from them. Then, further up, there are little kids who pursue me on bikes. They yell out insults and do wheelies to get my attention, but I just smile and ignore them. Silly little kids. Do they think I give a damn about them?
When I finally locate Dave's house, I wonder how I could have missed it; after all, it's really very like him. It's small and dirty and rough-looking, with a welcoming light in one window and an oppressive gloom in the others. I ring the doorbell but it doesn't seem to be working, so I hammer on the door for a bit. I try to look respectable because an old woman with iron-grey hair is staring at me through the window of the house next door.
Obviously not one for playing hide-and-seek with the curtains, she just stares grimly down. What the bloody hell are you up to? say her pursed and angry lips. I give her a dangerous look back, but she doesn't flinch.
"You made it then?" says Dave when he finally opens the door. In answer I just nod. By now, my mouth's wedged full of silence; it's packed in there like polystyrene. Dave smiles back and leads me through.
"Make yourself at home," he tells me coolly. "And don't mind Skipper." Skipper is a small, dirty, rough-looking dog that comes padding up to look at me suspiciously. I pat him affectionately on the back and he goes padding off upstairs. "Oi, where are you off to then?" shouts Dave, staring after him.
"I expect he's gone to take a look out the window."
"A piss more like," says Dave. And then, in patriarchal mood, "Skipper's a good dog. He knows who's boss round here."
I raise an eyebrow cynically. "Quite a place you've got," I mutter.
"It does for us."
In the kitchen, Dave, a self-styled biophysicist, has been genetically engineering new life. The results of his experiment are most plainly visible in the living room; a week's worth of unwashed plates on the table; food arranged in small heaps on the carpet; empty beer cans stashed in one corner as a monument to free-living; pizza boxes sitting quietly on the sofa, some still half-full of flabby pizza, now apparently incubating inside. I surmise his parents have gone away.
"Beer?" inquires Dave.
"Do you want that in a glass?"
I slide an eye over the carpet, where several glasses lie upturned and moist. I look at the damp patch that the glasses are lying in and suspect the worst. So, Skipper or Dave? There's no immediate evidence to swing it one way or the other. But then I think of Skipper's unobtrusive manner and discreet padding and suddenly feel ashamed to have included him in the hypothesis. Meanwhile, someone's hammering on the door outside.
"That's the door," I say. "Do you want me to get it?"
Mick comes in, looks indifferently at the biological war, goes to sit down, finds the sofa occupied by the biological war and remains standing. "Tidied up before we came, did you?" is his eventual, dry-witted comment. He says it half to himself and little else afterwards. Mick's economy with language has always been his strong point.
"Think I enjoy living like this?" says Dave, indulgently. "No, mate. This is for the sake of science!"
We all laugh. An opened tin of baked beans is discreetly making for the back door. Perhaps its occupant feels threatened by the laughter. But Mick and Dave don't seem alarmed, so I surmise it's a perfectly normal occurrence and don't point it out to them. In any event, they're much too busy cracking open beer cans and joking about the time they got Skipper drunk.
As if on cue, Skipper comes padding back into the living room, snuffles round Mick for a bit, before jumping up onto the sofa. Pizza boxes fly in different directions, Mick and Dave exclaim indignantly, and Skipper barks joyously and starts pissing on the sofa. I'm sorry to have been wrong about Skipper.
"Oi! Not on the sofa, you stupid mutt!" shouts Dave, flying into a fond rage.
"Manners, Skipper," I say, shaking my head sadly.
"Dirty dog!" says Mick disapprovingly, and we open the back door and chase him out into the garden.
The garden is too oppressively desolate to stay out in for long, so the next five minutes are spent listening to Skipper whining and scratching at the door to come in. Dave and Mick chuckle guiltily with sadistic delight, but I don't really have the heart to join in.
Then, the doorbell goes.
"That'll be Olie," says Dave knowingly.
"How did he get the bell to ring?" I ask.
"Dunno. Always was a jammy sod!"
"What a wanker!" says Mick after some moments thought. This is Mick's standard judgement on everyone. I never knew him give a different one.
We decide to punish Olie for getting the doorbell to ring by not answering the door. But our few seconds quiet sniggering are interrupted by Olie hammering on the back door.
"How did Olie know we weren't going to answer the front door?" I say.
"Must've guessed, the mind-reading bastard!" says Dave bitterly and opens the door.
Olie comes in slowly to avoid tripping over Skipper, who is bouncing delightedly around him. He's wearing his sister's anorak. "Here, got something for you," he says to Skipper, reaching his hand into a pocket and producing a hard, dry biscuit.
"Don't spoil him!" says Dave angrily. "He'll only start pissing on the chairs again!"
"Sorry!" says Olie, laughing as he sets his charm to maximum. Always late, constantly letting people down, never straight with anyone, all Olie's little vices get drowned out by his easy, laughing manner.
Dave relaxes and starts laughing too. "Get back out in the garden, you stupid mutt," he shouts, pointing to the door. Skipper jumps up and down ecstatically and goes running off upstairs.
"Got anything to drink round here?" asks Olie, kicking one of the empty glasses on the floor under a chair. Dave wanders into the kitchen to fetch him a can of lager from the fridge. Meanwhile, Mick takes his coat and just stands there, holding it, as if awaiting further instructions.
"Did you bring your binoculars?" I ask Olie while we're waiting, more by way of a conversation opener than out of any real expectation that he has.
"No. Should I of?" he replies, puzzled.
"Never mind," I say light-heartedly. "I suppose I can always borrow a pair off Skipper."
"Skipper? Binoculars?" says Dave, returning with the beers. "Skipper's a dog for Christ's sake! He doesn't need binoculars!"
"He does if he wants to spy on the Indian family next door."
"What? And have those bloody Pakis calling the police? Not likely!" says Dave, warming to his favourite theme.
"I think you'll find they're Indians," I reply sweetly.
"Same thing, isn't it?"
"Oh well, they all eat bananas," is Dave's considered reply. "Now come on, let's get out of here."
We're supposed to be meeting Anna down the pub tonight. I don't know why. I don't particularly like her and nor do the others. But we always meet Anna on a Thursday night, and routine is the axiom around which our lives revolve.
"How much are you gonna be drinking tonight?" Dave cheerfully demands of Mick.
"A fuck of a lot," I whisper under my breath; just testing the bars.
"A fuck of a lot!" says Mick with a grin. His audacity's greeted by laughter.
"Hope Anna doesn't bring any of her weird friends!" says Dave, expressing the same hope he's been expressing for months now.
"Yeah," says Olie, heartily. "I wish she'd leave her dogs at home! Especially that Zoe. I mean, she's even got a beard for fuck's sake!" It's about time for one of his father's famous anecdotes, but, mercifully, there doesn't seem one readily to hand for bearded women.
"Yeah," says Mick in his placid, self-effacing way. "Frightens the living daylights out of me!"
"All Anna's friends should be exhibited in a zoo!" says Dave decisively. This raises a laugh.
We reach the pub. There has been no metamorphosis. It's just the same as it always is, the usual shabby brick and flaking paint. Stooping to pass under the low door, we enter, pull up our favourite table and set about our usual argument about whose turn it is to get the drinks in. Mick's hands seem to be full of cigarette packets and lighters and coins.
"You can put your little stash of things here," I tell him kindly. He gratefully deposits them in a small, untidy heap on the table.
After the first couple of pints, I loll my head back against the wall, disappear down into the sofa, and start watching the people. That way, I don't have to participate in the bitching that forms the stock conversation on a night out down the pub. Instead, I observe some girls in heavy make-up and platform shoes preening themselves in front of the mirror. They shriek and cackle and chain-smoke. Their handbags seem very important to them.
I am not the only one to observe them. Some over-groomed men are slowly moving into range. They are doing a great deal of laughing. Ha, ha, ha, ha goes their booming laughter. It seems to carry on for hours. Occasionally, a few words are thrown in.
Awkward and straight-backed, they stop a few feet away from the girls. The girls ignore them. Cigarettes are lit. There are looks. When a kind of meeting between the two parties does occur, it happens in the mirror.
Anna arrives. She's brought the fright-dolls. They're all battery powered. Anna ushers the fright-dolls into a row of chairs and gets them each a drink and a cigarette. One hand to drink the drink, the other to smoke the cigarette. Left, right, left, right, Anna manages to talk as well as keep time. Her shrill voice, loosened first by nerves and then by lager, acquires a sort of monotonous grind that shows no sign of running down. As there don't seem to be any concepts included in what she's saying, I get to feeling that she's somehow bluffing and not actually using a known language. This perplexing thought keeps me occupied for a good ten minutes. After that, I just get resigned and end up hoping someone will drop a nuclear bomb on the pub.
Eventually, I'm forced to act; I spark a conversation with Olie. Thankfully, Olie proves responsive.
"You know there's some new bloke coming to join our class next week," he tells me chattily once I've got him started. "American too, I think. I heard old Fletcher giving Mrs. Braun the run down this morning."
"Oh?" I say, wondering how it is that Olie always seems to hear these things.
"Yeah. Fletcher was all over her again, of course," continues Olie enthusiastically.
"Lecherous old bastard!"
"Do you think he'll be very religious?"
"Who?" asks Olie, puzzled.
"This new American."
"I suppose he could be some kind of Mormon," says Olie dubiously.
"Or the son of a famous film director."
"Hey, that gives me an idea," says Olie, getting suddenly enthusiastic. "My dad's getting me a video camera for my birthday."
"Oh?" I ask cautiously, fearing that Olie's taste for hard-core pornography might be about to birth itself yet again in the world.
"Yeah!" says Olie breathlessly. "We could make, like, a documentary of his first days at school, and then sell it to his pop. Make a right old profit from that. Might end up being world famous too."
"But his pop's not," I point out placidly.
"A world famous director. That was just one of my brilliant conjectures, remember?"
"Oh, yeah, right," says Olie, suddenly deflated.
Our conversation is momentarily drowned out by Anna, who's encouraging some of the fright-dolls to join her in the rendition of a favourite song. It's not that we've stopped speaking, just that we can't hear what we're saying. Meanwhile, the batteries of one of the fright-dolls seem to be running down, for she is frozen, cigarette midway to mouth. The other two are still going strong though. Mercifully, we're spared a second rendition of "Stand by your Man" because Anna has to take all three fright-dolls to the bathroom.
In the interval, we try to restart our conversation and fail. Something's changed. I shrug my shoulders uneasily and wonder why the room seems to have shrunk. I examine the ceiling, noticing how damp it is, trying to remember how high it was when we came in.
Then, Anna returns from the bathroom. Whatever happened in the bathroom, it seems there'll be no more "Stand by your Man" tonight. Instead, flanked by the fright-dolls and curiously insulated, she starts on Mick.
"Christ, Mick, you're always so bloody miserable!" she says, seeming to notice him for the first time. Mick, who hasn't been looking particularly miserable up to this point, starts looking miserable now. "Why are you here?"
Mick goes red. Caught off his guard by an attack of this kind, he just shrugs his shoulders in embarrassment and stares down at his pint.
"I mean, like, I could forgive you for always being a miserable bastard if you didn't wear your hair in that stupid fringe!" says Anna, seeming to find a rhythm. "Well? Are you going to answer me?"
Mick shows no sign of wanting to answer and nor does anyone else. We all push our pints around and consider bolting. It suddenly becomes tremendously important to be concentrating on the music. Then, there's that familiar laugh and a "You know, Mick, I think she fancies you!" to break the tension, and Olie's off on one of the old favourites about how his dad once had three women in the ground floor ladies' cloakroom at the local department store. It's useful timing.
Half-an-hour's worth of improbable close scrapes in the ladies' locker room later, everyone's in a good mood again and it's getting on for last orders. Still, whatever's nesting in the urban soul hasn't really gone away and presently, lubricated by lager, it slides out into view. As usual, Dave seems to be the most convenient vehicle.
"I'm not racist, right," he's telling us with mock sincerity. "It's just, like, I mean, what's wrong with having a laugh? It's their problem if they can't handle it." A little encouragement from Olie, who's also good breeding ground, and the target changes.
"Why do you all wear so much make-up?" says Dave, gesturing to one of the heavily made-up fright-dolls. "It doesn't make you any prettier!"
Olie and Mick laugh hysterically, like people who've just discovered half their body's disappeared. Dave looks my way and smiles hesitantly. I fiddle with my pint-glass in order not to have to look at him.
"Try looking in a mirror yourself, you ugly bastard!" retorts Anna. "Because make-up's what you need. Or more like plastic surgery!"
"No, you see, love, we're blokes, all right?" dismisses Dave. "We don't have to sit around all day, all tarted up, doing nothing, just trying to look pretty. I mean, not trying to be offensive or anything, but it's a man's job to do, all right?"
"What do you mean, do?" says Anna indignantly. "You never do anything. Unless you mean sod all!"
Dave ignores the retaliation, as he's now ready to unfold his philosophy more completely.
"I mean, what use are birds? They can't drive, can't play football, can't even change a lightbulb. No, listen, right, the only thing a bird's any good for." He breaks off to make a crude gesture. "You know what I mean?"
Anna's indignation has now outgrown her capacity to articulate it. Her mouth just opens and closes uselessly. The fright-dolls seem to have responded to the shock by collectively shutting down on idle. So the last ten minutes are passed in silence. Then, it's time to go home.
Hostilities are put aside on the walk home. We laugh animatedly and for no particular reason at everything. We ignore the discarded bits of newspaper and empty polystyrene packages and dogshit that litter the streets. We pass a couple of kebab vans but, for once, no one wants to stop. One of the kebab van owners shouts out after us and Dave shouts back to him to fuck off. Further up, we do stop, so that Olie can take a piss. Meanwhile, Dave starts snogging one of the fright-dolls. The others circle, restlessly. Then, we're off again. Apparently, we're going back to Dave's house for some top quality vodka.
I suddenly decide I've had enough. "Right," I say. I say it a couple of times until the others notice. They know what it means. They remonstrate with me to stay in a touching display of solidarity, but I won't be argued with. Eventually, there are high fives and I walk off down the street.
Now I'm alone. I'm walking quickly, overtaking anyone in my path, passing street-beggars installed under cashpoints for the night. "Got any change, mate?"
Cars pass. Sometimes the passengers crane their
heads to look at me. Sometimes, I crane my head to look at
them. Sometimes I don't. As I round the corner, it's raining
lightly through the warm air.
© 2001 Ian McLachlan, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This work also appears at www.abctales.com.
Modern life is dull for Thompson. The school, the friends, the pubs and night-clubs, none of these really satisfy him. He lacks direction. He doesn't know what he needs. His parents can't help him - they're no better than dormant plants. He has a daimon, but his daimon never speaks. He has a best friend, Debs, but Debs is more interested in finding out his secrets than in helping him find the truth. Then, Miles arrives. Miles is American and, in his way, just as dark and complicated as Thompson. Perhaps he'll know how to get some answers off the daimon.
On Daimons is a novel about myth, freedom and finding one's own identity. Visit the web site at www.ondaimons.com.