The Pacific Standard Fiction Series rolls on tonight at 7 p.m. with a reading by Colson Whitehead and Christopher Sorrentino. If you’re in or near Brooklyn area and are free, it would be great to see you. The Pacific Standard website has directions.
There’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the under-the-radar boost in book sales due to the increasing popularity of home-schooling. According to the article, home-schoolers come in a few different flavors. “The majority of families who home-school are conservative Christians, to be sure. But another sizable portion are secular counterculturalists, and then there are the diplomats, foreign-aid workers or those living in the desert or Alaskan wilderness–anyone far from a school.” But what’s more interesting is what these students have in common as readers: a preference for long books, often parts of a series, consumed with a leisure that public-school curricula don’t allow; an emphasis on narratives, which children like, divorced from contemporary politics, which surely can wait; and a powerful sense that children are major players in the world, the kind of people, perhaps, who deserve better than large classrooms and who may grow up more likely to write books than to be told which ones to read.The most popular series, across the political spectrum, are the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books and the books of G.A. Henty.
According to a new PEW Research Poll published last week, Republicans are still – in spite of the nation’s economic woes, their epically unpopular current president, and their party’s doubtful prospects for the upcoming election – happier than Democrats: 37% of Republicans versus 25% of Democrats consider themselves “very happy” – and more of them have been “very happy” since research on the subject began in 1972. While I have always suspected that a melancholic disposition is the first cause of Leftist political thought (see Why So Serious: Batman and the Intellectuals), I nonetheless find it disturbing to see this impression quantified in tidy pie graphs on the PEW website.But perhaps I should be gratified to have hard evidence of the truth of my suspicion that a basic dispositional division between people is the source of our two parties: fundamentally optimistic people, believing in the power of the individual human will and spirit to triumph at last over all obstacles, become Republicans; fundamentally pessimistic people (some might also call them realists), who recognize how powerless the individual can be against institutions and larger social forces, become Democrats.My theories, however, are for another day. The PEW report stresses that being Republican does not actually cause happiness, but it does find that setting aside all other extenuating factors that tend to increase happiness (money, being married, being healthy), a Republican is more likely than a Democrat to be very happy. And the report finds that more Republicans have more of the things that make people happy (And I quote):They have more money.They have more friends.They are more religious.They are healthier.They are more likely to be married.They like their communities more.They like their jobs more.The are more satisfied with their family life.They like the weather better.They have fewer financial worries.They are more likely to see themselves doing better in life than their parents did.They’re more like to feel that individuals – rather than outside forces – control their own success or failure.They have more of what they most value in life. (No, it’s not money.)So, while the Democrats may win the White House in a few weeks time, they are and will be still, it seems, losers in the art of getting happy.
Some new books that are getting lots of praise, and some excerpts from those books:Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis — review, excerptLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt — review, excerptYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon — review, excerptCrossing California by Adam Langer — reviewAlso of note: the creation of the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. From the press release, “Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The first winner will be announced in mid 2005.” Now Americans will finally be able to get their hands on a Booker.
Now that Thanksgiving weekend has finally come to a close, I have a bit of time to let you know about one or two odd and interesting books I’ve noticed lately. I happen to think that Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the more enjoyable books I’ve ever read, and I also loved reading about Kesey in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which, by the way is fantastic if read back to back with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels since the books tell essentially the same story but with different points of view and writing styles). So, I was rather intrigued when I came across Kesey’s Jail Journal. It’s a colorful amalgamation of collages, drawings, and text that he created during various stints behind bars over the course of thirty years.Another interesting looking book is Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death which is a companion book to the HBO series. I’m not a big fan of TV show companion books. They are nearly always hastily produced assemblages of screen captures and mind-numbingly idiotic text, but this one appears to break the mold a bit. The book isn’t an episode guide; instead it meanders through various backstories in an appropriately eerie sort of way, with lots of odd photos and ephmera related to the show. In that sense it’s interesting for what it is, but it’s also a triumph in book design. The book slides into this odd, plastic, vertical slip cover that is faintly reminiscent of a coffin, and the book itself lacks a traditional spine, and instead appears to be a series of booklets artfully woven together.Finally, I’m sure all the Mcsweeney’s watchers have seen this item, which for me falls into the annoying “weird for the sake of being weird” category. Projects like William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down keep me interested, but it bugs me to see McSweeney’s squandering the advantages they have over other independent publishers with so much forced silliness and ironic posturing.
Jonathan Yardley is probably my favorite book critic. Since I’m from Washington DC, and he is the elder statesmen of book reviewing for the Washington Post, my affinity for Yardley probably is at least in part due to home town bias. But Yardley also manages to go beyond the simple grading of new books that so many crics engage in. He also delights in guiding his readers to the myriad great books that are out there yet somehow hidden from view, be they long forgotten or merely obscure. Having such a trusted guide to the literary world can prove invaluable. His assesment of the year 2002 in books alone is enough to provide a plentiful pile of great new books to work through. State of the Art is a truly enlightening assesment of the last 125 years of American literature, and a must read for anyone who thinks they’ve covered all the classics. Finally, his occasional series, Second Reading, “reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” The latest installment is a look at The Autumn of the Patriarch, the most overlooked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s. As a big fan of Marquez, this article is really a treat for me, especially since I have never gotten around to reading Patriarch. By the way, did I ever mention that I once met Marquez.More Leonard MichaelsFolks must have really dug the fantastic Leonard Michaels story in the New Yorker this week, because many of this week’s visitors arrived here by searching for his name.
As would befall a good William Boyd protagonist, I fell ill and had to get penicillin shots during my vacation in Turkey. My only consolidation as I lay there was reading Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa, the story of an aspiring diplomat, Morgan Leafy. Morgan is stuck in Kinjanja, a British colony in Africa in the aftermath of World War II, and gets involved in plots to rig the fast approaching elections, hence finding his way out of Africa and to a better, higher, position somewhere more civilized. Torn between his boss, mistress, love affair, local tribe leader, and adversaries among the British population, Morgan struggles to make ends meet but the rising demands of the British government and the impending visit of a duchess further complicates his plans. A Good Man in Africa presents an amazing build up of circumstances and characters for uproarious laughter. Towards the end of the novel I was laughing uncontrollably as Morgan dug himself deeper in a hole. Misfortune and reflection of absolute British arrogance has never been as funny as it is in Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa.Upon my return to the United States and catching up on my Millions reading, I decided to pick up Don DeLillo’s Libra per the venerable J.P. Hasting’s suggestion. Previously, I had only read White Noise by DeLillo, which did not really impress me that much and furthermore left a bad taste for DeLillo in my mind. I am, however, very glad to have read Libra, which, along very similar lines to Oliver Stone’s JFK, presents a conspiracy theory explaining the President’s assassination. I have a tendency to get carried away and believe in the pieces I read, and Libra took my fascination with JFK’s assassination to a new level. The context that DeLillo creates, post-Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises, and the characters that he presents, all unique with their grudges, distrust, hate of communism, and patriotic frenzy, make for a marvelous “fictional” read and an excellent conspiracy that I, personally, find extremely convincing. I strongly recommend reading Libra and watching Stone’s JFK back to back.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7
David Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks is coming in September (it was featured in our big second-half preview), but he gave readers an early taste of something new last week, tweeting out a short story called “The Right Sort” over the course of roughly seven days. The story is not directly connected to The Bone Clocks, though it occupies the same universe as the novel. Many followed along on Twitter, but The Millions now exclusively has the entire story, collected in one place, below:
We get off the Number 10 bus at a pub called ‘The Fox and Hounds’. ‘If anyone asks,’ Mum tells me, ‘say we came by taxi.’
‘I thought lying was wrong,’ I say. Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth. Mum gives me a look. ‘It’s called “creating the right impression”.’
A lorry rumbles by. ‘Besides,’ adds Mum, ‘if your father paid what the judge told him to pay, on time, we would travel more by taxi.’
Westwood Road’s not a run-down road, but it’s hardly posh either. Joined-up red-brick houses, like ours. Small drives. Dustbins.
Not like you’d expect a Lady to live in. ‘Right,’ says Mum, double-checking the directions she wrote on an envelope. ‘This way.’
‘So we’re looking out for an alley called “Slade Alley”,’ says Mum. ‘On the left. And mind the puddles.’ Off we trudge.
It’s a grey afternoon. Rain’s forecast for later. Through a front window, I see wrestling on the telly. Mum walks ahead. I follow.
I hope to God nobody from school sees me in this tweed jacket and tie Mum bought me from Littlewoods. I look like a total ponce.
If any of Gaz Townshend’s lot catch me dressed like this, life won’t be worth living come Monday. His gang shits on me enough as it is.
It’s all very well for Mum to say, ‘You shouldn’t care what people think’: kids have laws and if you break those laws, you’re dead meat.
(No point telling Mum about getting picked on: she just sighs and says, ‘You should have passed the scholarship for King’s, Nathan.’)
Leaves blow down from an overhanging branch. There’s more leaves off than there are leaves left. October. The clocks go back tonight.
Suddenly here it is: ‘SLADE ALLEY’ says the old-style sign, high up on the windowless side of one of two houses the alley cuts in between.
You can’t see Slade Alley till you’re smack bang in front of it. Dark. Dunno. It’s like Slade Alley shouldn’t even be here.
A real live Lady, married to a real live Lord, living down here? If you ask me, Mum’s ballsed it up. Wouldn’t be the first time.
‘Lord and Lady Briggs’s main residence is in Oxfordshire,’ Mum tells me for the umpteenth time. ‘This is only Lady Briggs’s town house.’
‘I didn’t say anything,’ I say. ‘Good,’ says Mum. ‘Come on then, don’t dawdle.’ Her voice and footsteps echo a bit.
It’s colder in Slade Alley than on Westwood Road. After twenty paces, the alley turns left, then carries on between two high walls.
‘We’re to keep our eyes peeled for a door,’ says Mum. ‘A black iron door. Lady Briggs said it’s easy to miss.’ You can say that again…
…’cause there’s no door down here at all. No gate. No ‘townhouse’. The alley turns right, then after twenty more paces, you’re out…
…where a sign says ‘CRANBURY ROAD’. Mum scowls at her A to Z, at her scribbled directions, at me. ‘I don’t understand,’ she says.
I think I do. It’s Mum’s Valium. Makes her slapdash. She gets two prescriptions from two different doctors, and takes a double dose.
Valium calms Mum down enough to teach her students, but it makes her mix things up. She called me Frank yesterday – Dad’s name.
Mum doesn’t notice that I nick the odd pill. Valium’s like my power pill, from Pac-Man. I get nervous too. I took a pill before we left.
The pill’s just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.
Valium or no Valium, when the dog barks I nearly shit myself and my lungs fill with dark and my blood fills with a scream—
But it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s only a yappy little thing through this fence. Not a bull mastiff. Not the mastiff. The dark drains away.
That was three years ago. They had the dog put down. ‘Destroyed’, it said in the papers. Maybe Mum’s noticed I’ve gone pale and sweaty…
…but probably not. She’s still too flustered about not finding Lady Briggs’s house. Our visit’s all she’s talked about all week.
Ever since Lady Briggs invited us over to a soirée after the rehearsal. Mum’s a piano teacher. Lady Briggs plays the harp.
Mum made me shine my shoes, like, a gazillion times. ‘Don’t let me down, Nathan,’ she keeps saying. ‘These people are the right sort.’
A bald man in overalls with a broken nose walks by, turning off Cranbury Road into Slade Alley. He’s carrying a ladder.
He’s whistling ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’.Mum cuts in. ‘Excuse me, do you know where I’ll find Lady Norah Briggs’s house?’
(She’s used her posh voice. ‘House’ is ‘Hice’. I want to die. Being posh at my school is worse than wearing flares or being gay. Almost.)
The ladder man says, ‘Nah, but if you find her, tell her Ladyship I fancy a bit o’ posh if she fancies a bit o’ rough’. He winks at me…
…then the ladder goes down the way we came, into Slade Alley. ‘What a repulsive, greasy oik,’ says Mum, quietly, thank God.
What a waste of time. I could be at home, playing ‘Germans versus British’ on my desert battleground. Rommel’s tanks are cornered.
(Me and Dad invented the game before he went back to Rhodesia. We built the landscape from papier-mâché. It’s epic.)
Theo Jukes would never do war games. Theo Jukes is a trombone-playing accountant. Theo Jukes is divorced. Theo Jukes is a twat.
I think Theo Jukes and Mum have done it. She’s dressing different. She’s only been properly divorced from Dad for a month.
Several times, she’s ended a phone call when I’ve come in from school. I’ve asked her who it was and she’s said, ‘A wrong number.’
Theo Jukes told me, ‘Know what, Nathan – I think we’re going to be mates.’ Right. Know what, Theo – I don’t.
‘It has to be here,’ says Mum as we turn into the middle section of Slade Alley. We see the ladder vanish at the far end.
There are no windows overlooking Slade Alley. Not one. You could be murdered here and not a soul would see.
I get one of those moments that aren’t like other moments, when you’re so aware that the world’s real it feels like you’re dreaming it.
Then here it is: a door in the brick wall. Black metal. Mum sort of half laughs: ‘Some boy scout you are.’
‘I left Scouts ages ago,’ I remind her, sulkily. I left after Mr Moody took over. He was all ‘poofter this’ and ‘bumchum that’.
The black door’s not shiny, not dull. No handle, no keyhole, no gaps round the edges. Like it’s made of night. Like the wall’s grown it.
The door sort of summons my palm. The smooth metal’s not warm, not cool. The door swings inwards. Its hinges shriek like brakes…
…and it opens onto a garden, a buzzing, summery, magazine garden, just as the sun comes out and turns up all the colours.
‘Well would you cop a load of that,’ says Mum, forgetting to sound posh. We’re speechless. Even me. It’s just so beautiful.
The garden’s an explosion of roses, foxgloves, sunflowers, poppies…More I can’t name. A rockery, a pond. Bees, butterflies, birdsong.
The garden draws us in. Gravel crunches under our feet. I hardly noticed the black door shutting, like a butler closed it.
Lady Briggs’s house is old grey stone. Square, windows, a posh front door with steps. Half smothered by that fiery red ivy.
Valium brightens colours a bit. Reds are bloodier, blues go glassy, yellows sort of sing and greens pull you under like quicksand.
How could this big house fit in the gap between Slade Alley and Cranbury Road? Where’s the drive? What’s it doing here?
When an invisible boy says, ‘Mrs Bland?’ me and Mum jump like we’re trespassers, and look up, up to the high wall – there’s a kid.
Black, wavy hair; big lips; pale skin. Thirteen-ish? About my age? Mum hadn’t said anything about Lady Briggs having a son.
Another boy around changes stuff. Who’s cooler? Who’s harder? Who’s cleverer? Who’s swottier? I’ll have to work it all out.
Mum’s uncertain too. ‘Yes. I’m Mrs Bland. But that wall’s jolly high, you know. I suggest you come down – carefully.’
The kid says, ‘Nice to meet you, Nathan,’ like he’s a teacher or something. Bet he goes to a posh school, being the son of a Lord and Lady.
Him being posher ought to give me a big advantage – but that’d only be true in the non-posh world, like ours. Here, I’m the pleb.
He’s dressed in a black shirt, jeans and pumps. Not an inch of tweed, I want to tell Mum. I just nod and say, ‘All right.’
‘Lady Briggs is expecting us,’ says Mum. ‘For the soirée. Are you…um, related to her, at all? She didn’t mention any, uh…’
‘I’m Jonah,’ says the kid, like that’s not a weird name in the least. ‘Let’s say that Lady Norah Briggs is my mother.’ Let’s say?
From the house we hear a woman’s voice. ‘Oh, splendid, Rita, you managed to find us!’ A woman strides down the pebbly path.
Lady Briggs looks Mum’s age, mid-thirties, but slimmer. I expected her to be older and crotchetier. Her dress matches the garden.
(Mum’s dressed like she’s off for an interview.) ‘Delighted you could join us!’ Lady Briggs’s voice is fruity bronze like a clarinet note.
Her black curls look alive. Creamy skin, strawberry lips. Even on a warm afternoon, Lady Briggs gives off a sort of heat.
‘Thank you, Lady Briggs.’ Mum’s gone all twitchy and fragile. ‘Your directions were, um, easy to follow. This is, uh…Nathan.’
‘Oh, Rita, call me Norah,’ says Lady Briggs. She shakes my hand. Her handshake’s like a steel claw inside a warm rubber glove.
‘Very nice to meet you, Lady Briggs,’ I say. She holds my eyes. I couldn’t look away if I tried. The afternoon sways a bit.
‘What a mannerly boy,’ says Lady Briggs. ‘Ill-bred children are a modern plague. Have you inherited your mother’s gift, Nathan?’
She releases my hand. I feel both let go and kicked out at the same time. I ask, ‘What gift, Lady Briggs?’ Lady Briggs replies, ‘Music.’
Mum answers for me, as usual. ‘His Bach’s not as awful as it was, but I’m afraid Nathan simply doesn’t practise enough.’
‘I practise an hour a day,’ I say. ‘It needs to be two, Nathan,’ says Mum. ‘I see you’ve met Jonah already,’ says Lady Briggs.
Me and Mum both turn around, and Jonah gives us a second shock. He’s standing behind us. On the ground. When did he jump down?
‘Jonah’s an incurable show-off,’ says the Lady. I’m dead impressed and I can’t hide it. ‘How did you do that?’ I ask the boy.
‘Built-in teleport,’ says Jonah. Like most kids, he’s taller than me. Townshend calls me ‘Nathan Bland the Midget Gland’. Hilarious.
‘The others have arrived,’ says Lady Briggs, gesturing at her house. ‘Oh, and Yehudi’s dropped by. I’ve told him all about you, Rita.’
Mum’s like, ‘The Yehudi Menuhin? Here?’ Lady Briggs nods like it’s no big deal: ‘He drops by, when he’s in London. You don’t mind?’
‘Mind?’ says Mum. ‘No! This is…Like a, a dream.’ Lady Briggs steers Mum towards the house, saying, ‘Don’t be shy, Yehudi’s a teddy bear.’
‘Why don’t you boys,’ Lady Briggs tells us, ‘play outside for a little while? It’s a sublime afternoon. I’ll call when dinner’s ready.’
I guess Mum’ll be okay. Lady Briggs looks like she’s used to putting people at ease. She guides Mum up to the big grey house.
‘Have a plum,’ says Jonah, picking a fruit from the tree. Its perfumed slushy flesh tastes of August mornings.
‘Thanks,’ I say, ‘and is Yehudi Menuhin really visiting?’ Jonah gives me a funny look. ‘Why would Norah lie about such a thing?’
I shrug, noticing how Jonah calls his mum by her Christian name. My mum would purse her lips and call that, ‘Very modern, no doubt’.
‘I didn’t say she is lying,’ I tell Jonah. ‘I just mean…well, Yehudi Menuhin. I mean he’s like…one of the most famous violinists alive.’
‘True.’ Jonah spits his plum stone into tall pink daisies. So I spit mine further and ask, ‘Where do you go to school, then?’
‘I was never the going-to-school type,’ says Jonah. I don’t understand. ‘You’re a kid,’ I say. ‘You have to go to school. It’s the law.’
‘Laws are for sheep,’ states Jonah, though not in a show-offy way like he wants to impress me. I ask, ‘What about the truancy officer?’
Jonah looks puzzled, or acts it. ‘I’ve heard of them,’ he says, ‘but remind me: what is it a truancy officer does, exactly?’
I ask Jonah, ‘Are you taking the piss?’ Jonah says, ‘I wouldn’t dream of taking your piss, Nathan. In fact, I’d prefer it if you kept it.’
That’s kind of witty, I s’pose. I’d use it against Gaz Townshend but then he’d really kick the shit out of me.
So I explain what a truancy officer is. ‘Oh,’ Jonah says. ‘Then, no. I’m happy to say I’ve never met one. Let’s say I’m an autodidact.’
So I say, ‘What’s one of them?’ Jonah says, ‘It means I’m self-taught.’ I suppose that means he’s got like a home tutor or something.
Jonah asks, ‘Is your father a pianist too, like your mother?’ (If you said ‘father’ or ‘mother’ at my school you’d be a laughing stock.)
‘Dad lives in Salisbury,’ I answer. ‘Not Salisbury near Stonehenge, but Salisbury in Rhodesia, in Africa. He works for the Rhodesian Army.’
‘So he’s a soldier of some type?’ asks Jonah. ‘No.’ I boast, a bit. ‘He’s a gun expert. And an ace marksman, too.’ Jonah asks, ‘Oh?’
‘Sure. My dad can put a bullet between a man’s eyes at a hundred metres. I’ve seen him.’ Bet your posh ‘father’ can’t do that, I think.
‘What, so your father actually let you watch him shoot a man?’ asks Jonah. ‘That’s a very broad-minded attitude to education.’
‘It was a shop dummy,’ I admit. ‘At a rifle range.’ I can’t work out if Jonah Briggs is laughing at me. I can’t read him.
‘It must be hard,’ he says, ‘your father being so far away.’ I shrug. ‘You get used to it.’ Mum told me to keep schtum about the divorce.
‘Have you visited him in Rhodesia?’ asks Jonah Briggs. ‘That’s one part of the world I’ve not yet seen.’ I think, You’re only a kid.
I say no, I haven’t, but that Dad’s promised I can go at Christmas. ‘When it’s winter here,’ I explain, ‘it’s summer in Rhodesia.’
I don’t say how Dad promised I could visit last year, but he was too busy. I ask Jonah, ‘What about your dad?’
I’m expecting Jonah to say his father’s a magistrate or admiral, but no. ‘A horse kicked his head in when I was seven. He was a blacksmith.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I say, feeling a bit of a shit. Jonah says, ‘He was dead before he hit the floor, we were told. Such is life.’
I knew lords need horses for fox hunting, but I didn’t know lords could be blacksmiths too. Maybe it was just Lord Briggs’s hobby.
‘That’s terrible,’ I say. Jonah shrugs like it’s no big deal: ‘It was a long time ago.’ Can’t be that long ago, I think. ‘Right,’ I say.
‘Your mother’s kept her looks,’ says Jonah. I follow his gaze. His mum and mine are climbing the steps up to the front door.
What am I supposed to say to that? I suppose she’s not ugly. Theo Jukes seems to like her. She always puts on make-up and stuff.
Mum came to school a couple of months ago (to complain about our music teacher) and Gaz Townshend called Mum a horny honey.
Mark Ireland told everyone he wanted to give Nathan Bland’s mum a yeast infection. I had no idea what that meant. I still don’t.
Anyway, the door of the house closes on Mum and Lady Briggs. Jonah says, ‘Tell me about your recurring nightmare, Nathan.’
I ask Jonah, ‘What makes you think I have a recurring nightmare?’ Jonah replies, ‘You have that hunted look. Around your eyes.’
All the purple foxgloves sway like something’s there. There isn’t. Jonah asks, ‘Is it anything to do with those scars?’
Immediately my hand’s pulled my hair over the white-and-pink-streaked area. ‘No,’ I tell him. That day’s none of his business.
The mastiff’s none of his business. How it launched itself at me, how its fangs pulled skin off my cheek like skin off roast chicken –
– the mastiff’s black eyes as it shook me like a doll, my own blood blinding me – the weeks in hospital, the injections, the drugs –
– the bandages – Mum and Dad’s shouting matches – the ‘jokes’ – ‘Hey, Bland, you’ve got a rasher of bacon stuck to your cheek.’
I dream it. Even three years later. The mastiff pads through every dream, and if it sees me, my only hope is to wake up before—
Jonah’s teeth are perfect, like the kid with zero fillings off the Colgate ad. None of his business. I say, ‘What’s it to you?’
Jonah says, ‘I’m a collector.’ A skylark’s transmitting from some far-off star. ‘I never remember my dreams,’ I tell him.
‘Why?’ I ask him. ‘What’s your recurring nightmare?’ Jonah’s ready: ‘That’s easy, Nathan – Hunger.’ A bee blunders by.
Then I sort of smirk at his wazzocky answer: ‘You’re afraid of being hungry?’ Jonah replies, too patiently: ‘No. The enemy is Hunger.’
‘If Hunger’s so bad,’ I say, ‘why don’t you just carry a packet of biscuits around?’ Jonah’s smile is faint. ‘Not that sort of Hunger.’
‘Then what sort of hunger is it?’ I ask. A crow glides by, too slowly to stay airborne, you’d think. ‘Hunger that erases,’ says Jonah.
‘Hunger that dissolves the line between you and it. Hunger that kills. Ancient hunger. Future hunger.’ This, from a kid my age.
No wonder he doesn’t go to school. Gaz Townshend and Mark Ireland’d crucify him in his underpants on the monkey bars.
I ask Jonah Briggs, ‘Has anyone ever told you, you say pretty freakish things?’ Just to annoy me, he acts like he’s thinking about it.
‘In our salad days,’ says Jonah Briggs, ‘some people described my sister and me in such terms. Mr Grant did. He regretted it.’
I ask, ‘You have a sister?’ Jonah Briggs winds a stem of grass round his thumb. ‘Why the surprise?’ I don’t know what to say to that.
So I say, ‘Why be afraid of hunger? It’s not like the atom bomb, or a black mamba, or the Yorkshire Ripper. Hunger’s just a lack of food.’
‘You only say that,’ Jonah answers, ‘because you’ve never known it. Not the Hunger that extinguishes.’
I ask, ‘Why do you talk like that?’ Jonah asks, ‘Like what?’ I sort of take the piss, a bit: ‘“The hunger that extinguishes.” Come on.’
‘And,’ I say, before he can reply, ‘I have a hard time believing that a Lord’s son was ever, like, a starving kid in China or somewhere.’
‘I talk the way I talk,’ says Jonah Briggs, ‘just as Nathan Bland talks the way Nathan Bland talks. Listen. I want to teach you a game.’
‘What sort of game?’ I ask cautiously, so I don’t sound too gay. Wouldn’t surprise me if he says ‘a spiffing game of croquet’.
Jonah says, ‘It’s called “Fox and Hounds”.’ What bell does that ring? The world outside the garden’s a bit of a Valium-blurred fog.
‘It’s basically a race,’ Jonah says. ‘We each go to an opposite corner of the house. I shout, “Go”: the chase is on. Anti-clockwise. Game?’
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘And so whoever catches the other is the winner, right?’ Jonah nods. ‘Sounds like you’re a dab hand at this.’
‘Actually we live in a terrace,’ I say as we cross the lawn, ‘so we don’t have a path going round our house.’ Jonah just says, ‘Right.’
Close up, the Briggs’s townhouse is bigger, as if its scale changed when I wasn’t looking. No sign of the soirée inside.
The house has windows made of little framed squares. All the pale cream curtains are drawn. Which one’s Yehudi Menuhin behind?
‘What are these meetings of your mum’s like?’ I ask. Jonah strokes his throat. ‘You’ll find out for yourself soon.’
‘Stay here,’ says Jonah, at the front corner. ‘I’ll go round the back. We’ll chase each other clockwise, okay?’ And off he trots.
On one hand Jonah Briggs is a posh twat, but on the other, I wish I could be so totally myself and not give a toss what anyone thinks.
A path runs between a holly hedge and the side of the house. The drive to Cranbury Road must be round the back. Or the front?
‘Ready!’ Jonah’s voice travels around corners to find me. ‘Steady!’ I shout back. A loud silence, then ‘Go!’ and I leg it.
Jonah Briggs is in for a bit of a surprise. I’m going to win at Fox and Hounds. I’m short but I’m the third fastest kid in our year.
Dad says I’m a natural runner. I fly down the side path – slap slap slap and echo – and hurtle round the corner, swinging on a drainpipe.
As I thought, it’s the back of the house – a narrow strip of lawn with an empty clothesline, dark trees blocking whatever’s behind them.
Where’s the drive? There’s no back door – only four arched windows, too high to see through. No time, now. I’m running…
…low, fast, hard. Jonah may talk posh, but there’s something indestructible in him. When I catch him, he’ll respect me.
Slap slap slap and echo. Not an echo after all, but the wham-wham wham-wham of Jonah Briggs. He must be fast too.
Round the corner and down the other side path – this one’s as dark as the first, but clustered with brambles a bit.
Then I’m back to the front, my elbow smacks the butterfly bush and butterflies blizzard, orange and black and red and white.
I dart past the steps to the door, leap the rockery – bet you anything Jonah can’t do that – and I’m back at my starting point.
Down the echoey side alley – slap slap slap versus faint wham-wham wham-wham – I’m a natural runner – a natural runner – and…
…round the back again – the back lawn’s half the size it was. It can’t be. It is. It can’t be. Keep running. Keep running. Keep running.
I leg it down the bramble side – the brambles have half blocked it off. A breeze stirs the thorny tentacles…No, I’m imagining it.
The brambles scratch and try to trip me as I pass. Wham-wham wham-wham. I’m losing. Christ, I’m not the hounds, I’m the fox.
Round the front, the sun’s gone in, the front lawn’s not what it was and the ivy’s not fiery now. Half the flowers are dead…Stop.
Summer’s gone. How? Is the Valium wearing off? I turn round to tell Jonah Briggs, I twisted my ankle – I’m not playing any more.
I wait. Silence. Just my breaths, the empty passage, running down the side. The brambles move like hungry underwater things.
I call out, ‘Jonah?’ My voice is frayed. ‘I’ve got a stitch.’ Nothing. Okay. Jonah’s backtracked to ambush me with a scary ‘Blagh!’
(I remember Mark Ireland’s tenth birthday party. I hid for ages in a shed while everyone else scoffed all the food. Hilarious.)
Then Jonah comes round the corner. No. It’s not Jonah any more. It’s a darkness with dark eyes. Eyes that know me.
Darkness in the form of a mastiff, but as big as a horse, cantering, now bounding, and it’ll be on me in moments
and I’d scream if I could but I can’t my chest’s too full of panic I can’t blast out it’s choking me it’s choking me because it’s not Jonah
Christ it did Christ there’s Jonah’s head flipping side to side Christ from its fangs dangling by a flap of skin Christ closer closer closer
one howl two wails three snarls it’s surging wolves it’s winter killing it’s scenting meat it’s joy at pain it’s a cat toying with a bird…
…Something that isn’t me takes over and turns me round and runs me back but the garden’s half gone now like it’s eaten by fog no wall
no black door no lawn no roses, butterflies lie smeared and mangled, powder-paint skidmarks and get inside get inside before this thing
this Hunger this Hunger this dog the Dog closes its teeth into me through me through bones cartilage nerves skin dick liver lungs
up the steps stumble up up the steps what if the door’s locked then it’s got me I daren’t turn round daren’t look back the doorknob turns
Please turn it’s stuck it’s scratched gold it’s stiff it’s ridged does it turn twist pull or what push pull turn twist my hollow shriek
(A page flips – Dad’s face melts into focus in African light – ‘Jesus, you had the mother of all nightmares, matey’ – A page flips –)
And my hand’s still clutching the doorknob, but I’m crouching in a hallway, gasping, croaking – in Lady Briggs’s house. My heart’s still –
– still going slap slap slap slap slap slap like billy-o, but slowing, slowing. I’m safe. Tchaikovsky’s ‘Chant de l’alouette’. Mum.
Mum’s playing, upstairs. It’s her. I recognize her style. Mum’s notes tiptoe down the carpeted stairs. She’s safe. I’m safe. It’s okay.
The hallway is sort of square, with black and white tiles like a chessboard. Three closed doors. White walls. No windows.
So. So. So. I must’ve opened the door, sort of…fallen in, and shut it behind me. Shut out the…shut out the…what did I shut out?
I take a step back. Look. An ordinary front door, from the inside. Ordinary hat-stand. Ordinary coats. Ordinary umbrella.
A giant mastiff as big as a horse that was chasing me and bit off Jonah’s head? Listen to yourself. Oh for shit’s sake. Valium.
I looked ‘Valium’ up in the encyclopedia at school. In very rare cases it can make you hallucinate. I’m a very rare case. Obviously.
I know it felt real, but if it hadn’t, it would just have been a daydream. That’s the point of hallucinations. Or else it was bad Valium.
Bad Valium, like a bad pork pie, that gives your mind food poisoning. That’s what that mastiff and Jonah’s head were: mind-puke.
Jonah’s still probably running round and round the house. No: he’s lying in wait to ambush me. For a laugh. Right. Hilarious.
I can’t believe how badly I scared myself. Thank God nobody saw. Could Jonah have seen? I hope not. Probably not. Probably…
‘There you are,’ says Lady Briggs from a doorway. She’s holding a tray with a little iron teapot on it. Vapour snakes up from the spout.
‘Hello,’ I say, straightening up. Lady Briggs says, ‘Playing Hide and Seek?’ I say, ‘Sort of’, because Hide and Seek’s a bit babyish.
‘If I see Jonah, I shan’t say I saw you,’ says Lady Briggs in her clarinet voice. ‘We’re almost ready to dine.’ I say, ‘Okay. Great.’
‘Why don’t you go upstairs, Nathan? Your mother and Yehudi are getting on a like a house on fire. I’ll summon Jonah.’
Lady Briggs smiles, and the diagram in our biology class of a man and woman having sexual intercourse flashes across my mind.
Blood’s strange. We think blood serves us, but what if a human’s just a wrapper for its blood, and really it’s the blood who’s in charge?
The first flight of stairs reels me up its steps towards a small landing where a grandfather clock’s going Krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk.
I look behind to make sure Lady Briggs isn’t still watching me, and then readjust my dick. It’s awkward. Then I carry on up.
There’s a picture of a girl on the wall. Dead lifelike. Is that lacy thing a pinafore? She’s got freckles. She’s neither sad nor happy.
My feet don’t make a sound. The stairs don’t creak. The carpet’s thick as deep snow. Silently the banister glides under my fingertips.
If it wasn’t for the steady Krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk, you’d think the sound was turned down, or broken altogether.
The next picture’s by the same artist. This one’s an older man, with a moustache. Heavyset. He needs an eyebrow shave. He’s –
– shaking his head, I thought for a moment, but it’s just the dregs of the Valium in my blood. Look. Quite still. C’mon, Nathan.
The third’s also by the same artist. It’s a youngish man in a WWII uniform. He’s been through a lot. Look at his tired red eyes.
Who are these people? They don’t look like Jonah or Lady Briggs. There’s no name on the simple frame, no artist’s name either.
I reach the little square landing, halfway up. The hall below is dim. More stairs climb up to a panelled wooden door.
The grandfather clock watches me. The pendulum goes to and fro, to and fro, to and fro…It’s out of Tom’s Midnight Garden.
The grandfather clock’s stern but he has no time to tell me. See that? Both of its hands are missing. Krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk –
The clock’s unreadable face has three lines of writing: the first reads, ‘TIME WAS’; the second, ‘TIME IS’; the third, ‘TIME IS NOT’.
‘Chant de l’alouette’comes to an end and I hear a smattering of applause and a foreigner saying, ‘Bravo, Rita. And encore!’
‘Oh,’ comes Mum’s voice, ‘Yehudi. I can’t hog the limelight like this.’ The reply is too soft to hear, but several people laugh. Mum too.
When did I last hear Mum laugh like that? Theo Jukes doesn’t get that laugh on the phone. I guess soirées are good for her.
‘You’re all too kind,’ comes Mum voice. ‘How could I say no?’ Then she starts up Debussy’s ‘Danseuses de Delphes’.
I carry on up. Four more portraits. Here’s a woman with a pinched face and squeezed nose. She’s bloodless and frumpy-looking.
Krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk. Next is a boy, sixteen or seventeen. Grimy, red-eyed, needs a shampoo. A face like he’s just heard awful news.
Last but one is a girl with a beehive haircut, like off old LPs, songs like ‘Leader of the Pack’. Look at that vein in her neck, like it’s –
– it’s throbbing, almost. Like she’s on TV. It’s the Valium. These portraits are dead realistic but who’d want to live with them?
The next portrait hits me hard as a cricket ball: because it’s me. His – my – eyes are shut, but it’s Nathan Bland. The scar.
The zits. The nose I hate. The web of scars. This twattish tweed jacket. A painting of Nathan Bland, here, in a house I’ve never been to.
It’s the Valium. I blink. It’s still me. I blink again. It’s still me again. Was Mum in on this? Of course Mum was in on this.
Mum made me wear this jacket, so I’d match. She must have sent them a photo. But why? Did she think it’d be funny?
A ballooning ache in my lungs reminds me to breathe, so I do, but now I’m trembling, trembling with the bloody strangeness of it all.
I look down the stairs, expecting to see Jonah or Lady Briggs smirking up at me, but no, there’s only Krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk.
I’m confused by this stupid joke but most of all I’m angry. I tromp up the last few steps and normally I’d wait until Debussy was over,
but not today. I put my hand on a doorknob identical to the one below, gold with – what’s that word? – with bevelled edges, and –
(A page flips – ‘The fittest survive, Nathan,’ said Dad in the dark, in the tent, in the woods, as I fell asleep – A page flips –)
and I’m on the inside, it seems, with my hand on the doorknob, it seems, though I didn’t open it, I think, but I’m on the inside, it seems.
Debussy’s stopped. I turn. No soirée. No Mum. No piano. No circle of the right sort. No Yehudi Menuhin. Just a man and a woman.
The man and woman are sat cross-legged on cushions, with stiff straight backs. Like they’re Indian or something. But they’re not.
I know them. The woman is Lady Briggs. Only Lady Briggs is downstairs. A secret staircase? Not in real life. Then how?
The man’s Jonah. He can’t be. Jonah’s my age. This man’s over thirty. He’s Jonah’s dad. He must be. But Jonah’s dad’s dead.
Then Jonah lied. Why? Who are these people? They stare at each other, or into each other, or through each other. Like I’m not here.
Behind them is an arched window. The mild day’s turned to mist. It can’t have done. Blown leaves spin in the air. Very, very slowly.
In between the Briggses is an ornate block of wood. Vapour snakes up from the spout of the little teapot. A candle’s flame trembles.
Jonah and Norah Briggs could be figures in a painting in a museum. Another of those paintings only total nutters would want to own.
Hang on. If Mum’s not here…‘Where’s Mum?’ I demand, or try to demand. Jonah’s dad, if it is Jonah’s dad, turns to me.
‘Nowhere, Nathan,’ he says, in Jonah’s voice, but deeper, ‘Yet. She won’t be born for eleven years.’ He’s watching my reaction.
I make sure I heard him right. I did. He really did just say what I thought he just said. ‘I’m s’posed to swallow that bullshit, am I?’
Lady Briggs winces. ‘Ill-bred children are a modern plague.’ Her lips hardly moved. Her lips didn’t move. Her lips must have moved.
‘And what’s the deal with that stupid painting? The one with me in it, on the stairs?’ I can’t hear the grandfather clock any more.
‘My sister always paints our guests,’ says Jonah Briggs, or Jonah Briggs’s dad. ‘We are both creatures of ritual.’
‘For the last time,’ I demand, ‘where’s my mum?’ Unfortunately my voice squeaks a bit. Grown-up Jonah Briggs mocks: ‘Ooooo.’
‘Ooooo. A hairy, scary threat,’ sneers the man, ‘and from a boy terrified of dogs. I ask, ‘Has she left? Did you freak her out?’
‘Where could she have gone to?’ asks Lady Briggs. ‘There’s nowhere to go to.’ I say, ‘What do you mean?’ She says, ‘The glass.’
I don’t want to obey her, but my feet steer me towards the arched window. The mist is fog, with sketches of branches.
Charcoal on grey. The leaves aren’t moving. At all. They’re just… Suspended. ‘My sister’s quite the artist,’ Jonah tells me –
– though I barely heard him. A crow flaps out of the fog, inch by inch, too slow to stay airborne, slower, and slower, and now…frozen.
A photograph of a crow. I turn around, and ask, ‘How do you do that?’ Lady Briggs shifts on her cushion, and in my head her clothes rustle.
‘Now is not the time to explain the Shaded Way to an ill-bred child,’ says Lady Briggs’s voice. Jonah’s voice adds, ‘Time is not.’
‘I’m going,’ I say. ‘You think you’re…But you’re only bad Valium. Both of you.’ They share a smile like brother and sister.
The Jonah outside was just a younger version of this one. Knowing what’s impossible doesn’t change what’s actually true.
I make my feet take me back to the door, but the door has gone. There’s just wall. Blink hard. No door. The window’s gone too.
This room’s the world and the world is walled and time’s slowed so slow now that the flame’s still and the vapour from the spout
is a plume, forever going nowhere. My body takes me to the ornate block of wood. My knees bend so I’m forced to kneel.
Things sway like I’m on a hook. At least my voice still obeys me, though it’s twisted and raw: ‘Why did you bring me here?’
‘To feed the Hunger,’ say Jonah and Norah Briggs in a single voice, as if it’s a perfectly normal thing to say. ‘To save ourselves.’
We found you via your mother. The Right Sort have a glow, and their parents have a little of it too. Then we tenderised you –
– like your butcher tenderises meat – by fear. That was the dog, the mastiff. You were born for us, Nathan. Your blood knew it.
For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful. Their fingers weave, like hieroglyphics in sign language.
My head’s pulled closer to the flame. It’s utterly unmoving. Time’s not passing here. It’s the same moment that it’s always been. Bad –
– Valium. The fittest survive, Nathan. A hole drills itself, above where my eyebrows meet. Exactly as your father says.
I try to clench my muscles to wake myself up, but my muscles aren’t mine now. Something leaves through the hole in my head…
A strange bright blurring hovers there, pulsing like a jellyfish. Jonah and Norah lean in close, eyes longing, eyes wolfish…
Jonah and Norah, whatever they are, suck sharply in through puckered lips. The blurring’s thinner now, and longer, till –
– until its ends are in their mouths. Stretched too thin, it tears in two. They smile and slurp it up like a strand of spaghetti. Too late,
I understand. That was my soul. My soul. It’s gone. Valium. Bad Valium. Bad Valium. Bad –
Copyright David Mitchell, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.