In a small place like this, things turn out pretty much as you might have guessed they would, mostly. Even the strange and shocking could get stretched back and back: more sinew than elastic: until it was just plain obvious that one day there had to be a release.
“You heard that Dunny shot Pilling in the head. Right through the temple with a .22. Then said they were just fooling about in his mother’s bedroom. But of course Pilling was dressed up in what you would not believe and tied to a chair as well.”
Dunny got manslaughter for that and there would not be a single person from our year at school who was in any way surprised that it ended-up so; or who believed his lawyer’s claim that it was a result of whatever form of abuse was in fashion that month. It was always there and waiting. The now fat and bald— it had been written all over their school blazers in dandruff and crisps. And these cheating, flirty wives— why they were doing it back then, balanced on the benches in the cloakroom while their girlfriends held out coats: bullfighters daring the passing teachers or prefects to risk a charge.
The bullies and the bullied: without a pay back in sight, even though little Timmy is six four, stuttering and twitching with no-one to hit or love: while his destroyers are dentists or lawyers with beautiful wives and children of porcelain perfection. Teacher’s pets that left and returned quickly: others that started small enterprises appropriate to the area and failed or survived: they just keep on shuffling back for one more class reunion. The old boys and girls: still ripe and eager enough to post out pretty invitation cards to even the vampires like me, and then wait in an endless detention with backs turned – in hope that one of us might show up – to the glowing windows while staring at the blackboard. The same unanswerable questions chalked in letters clearer than any white on black:
“How is it the boy who thought he was John Lennon and never sat a test, or played any sport – and now only ever visits the place to find the biggest bum in the roughest pub to buy drinks for – is now a star ? And how can that queen of all tarts earn more strutting her stuff in a week than most folk earn in a year ? Or the one that insulted dear, silver-haired, bow tie connoisseur, Mr. Hawkins before storming out of his English literature class, is now a poet and writer who won’t even sign a book for the school library ? Not right; not fair.”
Then best of all:
“What of Colin ? Where did he go and what does he do ?”
No one knows. Not the good or the bad, the content or the miserable. Though everyone would love to hear. Maybe, they think, it would be another chance to understand. Or maybe, just the fact he did what they would all love to do: vanish from this place without trace.
And I was his closest friend, they whisper, or did— according to my ex wife: an erstwhile prefect, deputy head girl, and class reunion specialist. Surely I must have the answer and could spare that much ? For old time sake at least. They were the best years of our lives after all.
I’d ended up sitting at the only empty double desk in my new class, after being demoted from the top group in math for refusing to get my hair cut. The teacher, a squat, hysterical little toad of a man, claimed it was because of my poor marks. Everybody, I hoped, knew that it was a lie and conspiracy, even as the deputy head who escorted me from one class to the other and had once, during the break-up of my parents’ marriage, claimed to be a friend, called out to them: “This is what happens if you do not listen to your masters and work hard: this falling from the heavens to what lies below.” He was stood talking to my new teacher as I got settled, whispering the truth, I guessed, so I would not get elevated again by anything as false as high grades. I noticed Colin as I sat down: you could not really miss him, at over six foot tall with cruel, slit eyes like some ancient Mongolian warrior. Also, his clothes stood out – immaculate and completely out of place. School uniform was still the rule. His looked as if it had been tailor-made for him – the white shirt glowed and his necktie was pinned with a gold stud. Sat next to him, as the perfect foil, was a scruffy little weasel, named Jackson, who was known for bullying and stealing off first years. I had seen them both before, but the caste system in school was absolute: ‘A’ group did not mix with ‘B’ and so on to our own version of the untouchables, the remedials. I even imagined as I sat down that there was a smell in the classroom, a dirty, heavy atmosphere and wished I was back with my own and had not been led into this by some nagging and growing voice of rebellion that was, it seemed, singling me out for sacrifice.
After a bit though I began to enjoy myself. The questions were easy and basic; the answers were beyond imagination. This one small step down and there was a different world to explore. “Please Julia,” the teacher pleaded, “you can do better than that, please try again.” The girl, who looked about ten years older than any of the girls in my group, stretched her beautiful, long, bare legs even further into the aisle, shook a mass of red hair and looked at the teacher as if she might just swallow him whole. “Fucking no way,” some boy said from near-by. This did get a response. “All you little boys go ‘fuck fuck fuck’ but none of you ever do – not one of you ever really goes for it.”
“Okay, Julia,” the teacher said without looking surprised at her outburst. “Now, if it takes two men two hours…”
I heard the tall boy sitting behind me say to the other: “Give me the answer Jackson, quickly.” Jackson whispered it to him. He was wrong, but only just. For some reason, I turned halfway round and gave him the correct one. His almost black, deep eyes flashed between the two of us. He stretched his hand up, ruler straight to the ceiling, and I noticed a couple of others go immediately down. “Yes Colin ?” the teacher asked, looking relieved to escape Julia who had kept staring at him while crossing and uncrossing her legs, as if counting on the only abacus she knenw she’d ever need. Colin gave him my answer. “Well done,” the teacher said, “Very good: carry on like this and you will be moving up to take our new friend’s vacated place.” A second later I heard a sharp stabbing blow hit into Jackson, followed by another and another. It carried on until the end of the lesson with each hit sounding harder and more vindictive than the previous. As we left the class I saw Colin walk away and leave Jackson behind slumped over the desk with his shoulders rising and falling as he sobbed. Before I reached the playground Colin was by my side and would hardly move form there until I left school.
Girls did not like Colin. The reasons at first were beyond my understanding. He was tall and good looking and always wore expensive and very fashionable clothes. He was also more mature than the rest of the guys in the same year – he had even started shaving. And yet each time we managed to lure any of the girls into one of the many shelters that lay along the seafront or inside the scenic gardens, they made it obvious that he stood no chance of anything. Then he made clear what their instincts had told them.
I was walking through the small town with Colin and had seen Lil. She’s a dark-haired, very pretty girl that I’d taken to the cinema twice and wanted to become my ‘steady’. With her was this charity case called Mo. If you wanted to find a female opposite to Colin then she was it. Mo was short and dumpy with clothes that had been cut and rearranged by some mad grandmother that followed her in and out of school on a bike. You might have judged that this girl would be grateful for any attention from any boy; you would have put Colin down as the most unlikely choice.
We ended up in a shelter. Lil and me squeezed together and deciding between a spy film or spaghetti western. I put my arm around Lil and still could not believe how soft and beautiful she felt. Colin was sat in the corner. He was wearing a double-breasted, mustard-coloured suit and high, carved boots. His legs were stretched out from the seat and resting on the small wall at the front of the shelter where Mo was sitting. I saw one of his feet move and rest against her leg. She looked petrified. Then he sprang. He started tossing her around as if trying to shake her out of her clothes. It was so comical that I could not stop from laughing out loud; Lil was watching and looked uncertain. When Colin stood Mo rigid and white directly in front of him, her little tits exposed and baggy trousers and pants dragged down below her knees it had stopped being funny. He shoved one of his large muscular fingers inside her so hard that both her feet came off the ground and she dangled there without making a sound. Lil jumped up and dragged her friend away. She stood her outside and started to get her rearranged while Colin sat there examining his finger.
“Nicely done,” I said, watching the two girls rushing their way through the maze of small geometrical flower-beds and odd shapes of sea-washed lawn.
“I know what people will say about her,” Colin said; “but I like Mo anyway. Maybe we could go on a double date to the flicks one night.”
And I knew that he was being serious.
By now we had been hanging around together inside and outside of school for about three months. My other friends did not know why, and the funny thing was, if I stopped to think about it truly, neither did I. Except, perhaps, that I thought I was able to control him and in some way that had become necessary to a part of me that was vulnerable. There is a terrible time between being a child and an adult when you are in a wild savage place with no comfort or security and survival is the only game. One time we were walking along the seafront past the amusement arcades and open-fronted cafes. In one place there was a heavy old leather punch-ball hanging from a wire. Behind it there was a pressure plate with a dial that spun its brass pointer round and recorded, for a coin of course, the weight of the punch. A group were gathered in front of it, and two of the men were showing off to their families. It was what we had come to regard as a typical holidaymaker scene: tarty-looking women in skimpy swimsuits, pale and rippling with cellulite; and brutish, dirt-ingrained car or steel workers, with their brats, tar-stained from another oil spill, and burning from the sun. One of the men was huge and matted with black bristling hair. His friend was in ecstasy at the weight of the gorilla’s punch. He’d just sent the needle about three quarters of the way round. “The same as Sonny Liston and Joe Louis,” he read out. Colin was dressed in a lime green suit with a button down collar shirt. I saw the one woman look him up and down and start smiling. The man doing the hollering saw it too. He pointed up at the dial, “What do you think of that, boy ?” he said to Colin.
The woman stopped trying to push her cleavage into the sky and looked back at the floor. The man that had landed the punch was still swaggering. Colin took his jacket off, folded it neatly and handed it to me. He undid the top button of his shirt, slipped a coin into the machine, and hit it with a short, chopping right. The needle reached the end of the dial and made a heavy clunk as it thumped against the stop. He took his coat back and walked off with me skipping along to catch up. I could hear angry voices coming from behind claiming that the machine must be broken and wrong.
“That was nothing like my full power,” Colin said: “not even close. You could have beaten that fat ape if you had wanted.” I smirked, knowing in my heart that one of those women could have slapped it further round with a boney painted hand than I could have. I was, I believed, a coward that had always been too smart to get caught or ever put to the test. I’d never been bullied though and never been a bully. In fact, to see anyone hurt, phsically or mentally, by a stronger person would haunt me long after the event until I loathed myself for not having tried to rescue them. As I said, a coward. One now with his own protector who may once, for all I knew, have been bullied. But was now definitely the bully.
Christian Wills was one of Colin’s main targets. He liked to catch him in town and head him off to some place of imprisonment. And I’d even helped the last time. Walking along by his other side as if the three of us were inseparable until we got him into a bus shelter. Colin had practised different martial art blows on him. Ones that were supposed to have injured and then cured. Each one had done nothing but add more pain. Christian had tried to bolt out of the door and I’d blocked the way. He was taller and heavier than me and I read in his eyes the knowledge that he could pass; and then what the cost of that would be.
“I have not done anything to you,” he said, turning to face the kick that could break and mend a leg. He fell to the floor and clung to the low wooden bench crying in pain. I looked at the names carved through the layers of paint into the clean dry wood below: messages of who loved whom, and felt as sick and cold as most of those seaside holiday romances were by now.
Later that day, I was walking alone in the middle of the high street, trying to figure out why I allowed myself to become involved in such an event, when a car pulled over. A fat little woman and an old man rushed out. “How dare you bully our son,” the woman said. The two of them had me trapped against the glass front of a shoe shop. “You are a mean little coward,” the man said. Christian looked out from the back of the car. I’d heard that his parents belonged to some small religious group and that Christian was their only child— a gift from God late in their lives. I felt people stopping and watching us. I tried to look at the shoes, seeing myself stepping from baby’s first to light, teenage fashion, before ending up as some brute in steel-capped heavy work boots,
“I am sorry,” I said. They got in and drove away. It was Friday. I did not go to school on Monday and Colin responded by knocking my best friend, Simon, into oblivion.
Simon had tried, and was trying, for the sake of our friendship, to accept Colin. He lived a long way off in the countryside and we could only rarely get together outside of school. He accepted that I wanted to get out and that Colin was at least near. The few weekends that we did get to spend together I had deliberately excluded Colin. Break time at school though there was nothing I could do, and it was an effort to keep them from each other’s throats. The rest of the gang took no part in the struggle but seemed glad that Simon was always willing to try. On this day, according to one of the others, Colin kept baiting Simon until he had no choice but to respond physically. Simon did tell me later that he had not even seen the punch coming. One second after taking a step toward Colin there was just pain and blackness – then he had found himself in the school surgery covered in blood with a fractured jaw.
Simon was already a fine and very sensitive musician and yet, as I sat visiting him in his sick-bed, he had no song except one of revenge, which made him seem much more deeply injured than any bruised and wired jaw could explain.
So I went round to Colin’s home for the first time. It was a high old house on the esplanade, weathered and smooth with streams of green stains weeping from fractures. He lived with his mother and a man that he said was his ‘uncle’. His mother was the mirror image of her son. I knew straight off that it was her that picked all his clothes and made sure how he was turned out. She made me stand on a sheet of newspaper while she went off to fetch Colin.
The ‘uncle’, a short, dark skinned man, crept through the kitchen and up a little stairway as soon as she was out of sight. Colin and his mother walked back along the dark corridor arm in arm. I’d spoken to Colin’s mother every time I phoned him. She had never once asked who I was or made any comment. Now she stood in the doorway, hands on hips, staring down at me. “I will show you the basement,” Colin said: “it is going to be my own place.” I tried to smile at his mother as we moved out but she was already looking through me.
The basement was reached by a door at the bottom of some steps at the dark side of the house. He had his own key and a torch was waiting just inside. It was derelict and smelled of damp and decay with an odour of something seeping in from the nearby sea – something once alive or part of life. Old furniture and stacks of metal framed beds like something out of a hospital or institute filled room after room and lined the corridor. At the end Colin opened a double door into a large room and switched on an overhead light. “This,” he said, “could be our den.” A couple of old leather chairs had been placed either side of a gas fire. On the floor there was a square of carpet and nearby stood a tasseled standard lamp. The rest of the room was hidden in shadows and felt empty. “We could do it up together and you could stay over, if you wanted – though Uncle mustn’t know as he’d be down here like a shot, drinking his hooch and going goggle-eyed over his dirty mags.”
“What did you hit Simon for ?” I asked. I kept making myself hear Simon singing out his poison over and over as I made my stand. “He’s trying to be your friend. And he is mine. I do not want you hitting him again – do you understand that ?”
Colin looked up at the ceiling. A thin cord went through the bend of a large metal hook and hung down. The other end stretched down and was joined to the floor. Colin reached alongside one of the chair cushions and pulled out a bayonet. It was about two foot long and the blade gleamed. “German,” Colin said: “they made the best.” He attached it to the cord, then placed a candle in a bottle under the other end of the string. He lit it and lay under the blade, tying quickly, as soon as he was in the right position, a woman’s black silk scarf over his eyes. Then we waited. If it did make any noise as it fell in that silence it was out of the range of my hearing. Colin rolled and the blade sliced deeply into the floor inches away from his throat. “Tell ‘Simon the Brave’ this is the initiation test: if he still wants in with us that is.”
School had started preparing us for work. The science teacher acted – with, no doubt, his presumed understanding of genetics – as the careers officer for the baddies and the likely, ‘drop outs’: a new expression that I was coming to like more and more. “Come in, sit down.” Then after a couple of minutes silence, either: “Factory” or “Farm.” I got the factory along with just about every other boy on the same level. The lower grades went agricultural. The girls all got sent to do extra domestic science. Colin refused to discuss what he’d been offered. Someone said that he was with the science teacher for ages and that they’d seen his mother go in with him.
The best years of your life, everyone kept telling us as the end got closer. I’d hated school and its repression— bordering, in my mind on brain washing —from the day I was dragged into it and could not wait to get free. Simon felt the same and we made a pact never to hide the truth of this in any nostalgia we were getting offered now as a sop to years of wearing uniforms, marching into religious assembly, getting beaten and calling little failures,’Sir’ as they tried to squeeze the beauty of knowledge and learning into two dimensional flatness.
We were together on the weekend walking through town – Colin had said he was going to be away again— hinting that it was to do with his career which was being transmogrified into something dark and mysterious. “And the only reunion we will ever go to,” Simon added to our agreement, “is the one where all the teachers come naked and we get to do the flogging.” Christian Wills stepped out of the bus shelter where I’d once helped imprison him. I wouldn’t have cared if it was to flog me for that day: in fact, the way it still affected me it would have been a blessing.
“What is it your Holiness,” Simon asked: “out looking for converts ?”
Christian was leaving school and going away to a special college to train to be a priest.
“I took the test,” he said looking directly at me: “the initiation test. Colin made me do it.”
“What is he going on about ?” Simon stared at the two of us, unsure, as I’d not told him anything about Colin’s offer or den.
“I have got the key,” Christian said. “And something to show you both. It is a secret. Colin’s greatest secret.”
I could see in Christian’s expression a look of joy and revenge.
“Ah, the blessed sanctity of the confessional,” Simon joked— as he always did he felt he’d missed something or was being left out.
We followed him, creeping along the back streets with their bulging and leaning, seaside cottages likes ships washed ashore but still undergoing some sea change. One of them even had a figurehead stretching her long neck out of the wall and turning the gray road below golden and flesh-hued as she desquamated in this dry prison.
“Colin has gone away for a while,” Christian told us. “I have to look after his den until he comes back. He has gone with his mother.”
“Where ?” I asked, wondering— as I’d started recently to drift away from Colin— was this my replacement ? I’d learnt that I did not need a strong ally to survive— and what the cost of one was. But what did Colin still need ?
“It is another secret,” Christian said. “But he told me that he was going on a special mission and one day we would all hear about it.”
We reached the sea-front and the tall esplanade houses. Christian made us stand and wait looking across at Colin’s house which appeared to have aged since my last visit. “He is still there, Colin’s uncle— on the spirits— I have to make certain he doesn’t see me.”
Finally, we crossed the street and edged our way round the base of the house. Christian took the key from around his neck and opened the door. A few seconds later we were stood in Colin’s den. “Look,” Christian said. In the middle of the room the bayonet was still sticking in the floor; next to it there was a dark stain. “That’s not it though,” he said, rubbing his collar-bone: “that is not what I brought you to see: it is in here.”
He moved to a small, low door that I’d not noticed during any of my few visits to this place.
“This is Colin’s secret,” he said, pushing the door open and ducking to step inside. A dull bluish row of lights filled the butler’s pantry with a pale, cold glow. The figures were everywhere: wall to wall shelves full of them: small raised stages on the floor with groups of them in different tableaux vivants.
“Dolls,” said Simon. “Mr. Super hero plays with dolls !”
“Action Man,” Christian told us as if we did not recognize them. “He has every version and uniform and piece of equipment ever made.”
I looked to see if Simon suspected I might be involved in this —that I must have already known— maybe even come down here and play. “Bloody hell,” I said, “no wonder he wanted to keep this quiet. What a tit.”
Simon though was not interested in what I had to say, he was staring at the figures and beginning to understand what the scenes laid out on the floor really were. I looked down with them and began to see. Christian already knew and was watching to see our reactions.
Though there were endless variations of features and uniform, one figure was identical and repeated many times: an immaculately dressed and clean shaven hero. Always this character was involved in one of the sets. Christian pointed at the prison. A small cowering version of the model dressed in rags was kneeling on the rough wooden floor of a small cell or cage made from evenly spaced metal bars. Towering above him was his captor and interrogator. He held a small syringe in one hand and an electrical prod in the other with a coiled wire trailing back to an intricately built and real generator. Blood and burns coated the naked torso of the prisoner who was gripping a pen in his hand and had a sheet of paper at his feet covered in minute writing.
“I guess I must have cracked pretty quickly,” Christian said without smiling.
Simon was looking at a fight. A crowd of soldiers from many different regiments and countries surrounded a boxing ring. In the centre the hero was raising one of his arms in triumph. Stretched out on the canvas lay his opponent. This time the figure of Action Man had been altered into some caricature of a hippy: long hair and beads, a pair of cut-off denims and sandals. The whole of the body had been ingrained in dirt and scabs except for the hands which had been remade out of some delicate white material, long and delicate fingers spread out as if spanning the octaves and oblivious to the body and surroundings. Slowly, I began to recognize other people from school: though the events were unknown. I looked around for me, and saw it. A firing squad in First World War uniforms. Of course he was the handsome lieutenant with his sword raised, ready to fall. I was tied to the post, dressed as he must have imagined some poet would have appeared. I could remember telling him that I thought the only good thing to have come out of any war was the poetry of the Great War, and that my greatest hero was Wilfred Owen. Only this poet was not dying in the trenches alongside his doomed comrades, he was being executed according to the sign around his neck for cowardice. So he had known.
“I am going to bring every single person from school to see this,” said Christian. “Then when he comes back everyone will be ready. Let him have his pain for the last few months of school. It will be good for his soul”
Simon patted Christian on the back: “Father, you are good for mine already,” he said, lighter in voice than I’d heard for a good while.
We heard heavy footsteps moving above our heads and carefully began to get out. I was the last to leave and saw, tucked away so that it could only be properly viewed with the door closed, his final vision. I took it in quickly as I did not want Simon or Christian to see this. I kicked the whole thing to pieces dragging my foot quickly over the group of naked or bizarrely adorned figures and, worst of all, the one genuine female doll, older and serene, stood watching the perversions with a huge painted grin still glistening and moist. I don’t know why I felt I owed him some grace: but I did.
I knew as we moved toward the sea-wall and Christian began to list the next visitors in his revenge that Colin would never really come back. I saw his ‘Uncle’ watching us move away from the already dirt-encrusted window and could see in his eyes that he knew the same and was glad and relieved to be free.
In a small place like this, things turn out pretty much as you might have guessed they would, mostly. Simon became the great musician, playing just about everywhere and with everyone. Collecting dolls of his own— blonde, leggy and always vacuous. I have not got shot yet for cowardice or poetry. Though it is getting closer. The rest keep on doing just about what that old Frankenstein put them together for. And Colin’s name still comes up. With a different story for every need. For all anyone knows he may be back in disguise watching every slip and fall.
Christian did not become a priest. Or if he did, somewhere along the way, he began searching for another icon.
I was sat watching the regional news, when a story came on about a local man who had been traveling the world searching for the body of some great hero that had been wrapped in a lead coffin and dropped in a warm sea too many miles from home. He’d given up everything to find the remains and had finally succeeded. Now he was trying to get permission and the interest from the naval hero’s own nation to have the body brought back and given a proper burial. The piece ended with a clip showing Christian diving down to the lead casket with, of all things, a wreath of plastic flowers. Drifting down through the clear still ocean like someone hanging from a thread, invisible but unbreakable.