Black mountain

It is 2016. I am an old man now and have returned, after thirty-one years, to what is left of my grandfather’s house in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Lord Krishna’s birth place.

I am sitting on a moss-covered stone slab that would have formed part of the grand stair before the house was gutted by fire and abandoned. There is much shade, many trees have grown where there were once rooms, but where I sit there is a patch of bright sunlight and it is warm.

Leaning back against a half-pillar, I shut my eyes and find myself thrown back thirty-one years to the mid-seventies when Ravi, my son, almost a year old, was taking his first unsteady steps.

It had been a hectic three days crammed with feasts, old friends and new faces. On the fourth, Sanya and I escaped the socializing and took a lift to Mathura, spent the day wandering through the market, sitting in chi shops, playing with Ravi, reading. Around tea time, wanting to eek out our time together, we decided to walk the few miles back to my parents’ house rather than take a taxi.  Ravi, like many small creatures, loved being high up, and sat on my shoulders like a tiny grinning Buddha. A faint tingle brushes my neck like an echo – even now I can feel his chubby thighs bouncing and rocking cowboy-style in rhythm with my steps.

It was early spring; a green fuzz was forcing its way through the cold soil, but still it would be a few weeks before a tangle of wild flowers cloaked the hillsides. The track curved steeply at first, giving us a long view of the river as it rose gently towards the falls. We must have been walking an hour when Sanya twisted her ankle. Although it wasn’t a bad sprain – indeed, she could hobble reasonably well with the help of a short branch – but it was beginning to swell – it would not be strong enough to take her home. So we sat on the verge in the softening sunshine to wait for a lift. No cars came. The road petered out after my parents’ house – there was still a link to the main Delhi road but it was seldom used.  We knew Ravi would soon be tired and once the sun dipped behind the mountain it would be cold. I decided to return to Mathura – if I met a car, well and good, if I didn’t I would be back with a taxi before dark.

Ravi waved the tiny fingers of one hand at me while he toyed with Sanya’s breast proprietorially, putting her nipple between his teeth like the butt of a cigarette, wagging his face from side to side so it tickled the inside of his lips. I kissed his forehead and ran. It was steep in places and stony – I can still recall the giddy feeling of almost catapulting head over heels, my legs unable to keep up with the building momentum.

 

I found a cab on the outskirts of the village. The driver was lounging across the bonnet, smoking a bide, and waved me away. He was waiting for a friend, he said, as he nodded towards a young blue-turbaned sheikh, carrying a food bag. After they’d eaten, he said, they were heading home to Delhi – couldn’t wait to leave what he described as ‘this hell-hole’. I pulled out my wallet and rifled through a wad of notes, taking out three times the normal fare. It wasn’t far, I said, and they could join the back road to Delhi without doubling back. He agreed and I climbed into the back seat.

Sanya was sitting on a rock. The sun had left this side of the mountain and she was cold, had been straining for engine sounds for the last ten minutes. As I opened the car door and received a wriggling and delighted Ravi into my arms, I noticed how the sheikh eyed up Sanya, saw the way he disapproved of the western bias of her dress.

At first we headed towards the house; then, with no warning, the driver swung a left into an old quarry, forced a gear-crunching three-point turn and roared back the way we’d come accelerating dangerously whilst barking at me to shut the hell up. As we swung down the Delhi road I turned around, hoping to see a car or truck to whom I might signal for help, but all I could see was the glare from the sun reflected in a blizzard of orange sand. After a few miles, he threw a left. I was very scared by now – I knew this track lead to a precipitous dead-end. I could feel Sanya shaking beside me and Ravi was beginning to whimper.

Then the road disappeared into vapour as the headlights beamed off into nothing. The sheikh slammed on the brakes, stopping just metres from the edge. Immediately he climbed from the car and sauntered to the door beside Sanya. I punched down the back locks and he pushed his face against the window to leer at Sanya. Ravi began to cry. Kicking the door in frustration he returned to the driver’s seat, reached bellow it and pulled out a bottle of whisky.

‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you…’ He shouted, gulping back the liquor.

Sanya and I locked eyes – she was near to tears, her hands shaking out of control as she unfastened her blouse for Ravi to suckle. ‘What is it you want from us – money? Here take everything I’ve got.’ I held out my wallet.  I hadn’t noticed before that the driver had small pointed ears and his long greasy hair had begun to unwind from the hard black knot on his head. He took my wallet, pushed his hair from his eyes with feminine affectation and counted the notes, slipping them into his pocket before tossing the empty wallet back over the bench seat. Then he lurched towards Sanya and made a grab for her blouse. I pushed him off, snatched up the stick that Sanya had used, and raised it to threaten him.

‘Steady up’. The man held up his hands as though offended – as though he hadn’t meant anything by it. Then he began to giggle, slapping one hand over his mouth, while the other rammed the bottle up against his friend’s chest. I was grateful that Sanya was bent over Ravi, unable to see the fear in the boy’s eyes, as he drank obediently.

‘Take us back; I’ll kill you if you hurt her – take us back and we’ll not say anything – the baby needs changing – come on, take the money, man – just take us home…’ I pleaded.

But the driver just laughed, snatched the bottle from his friend and drank some more. ‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you.’ He mumbled taking several gulps. ‘Why you so boring? The night is young – you’ve already made us late – we will have the party together – just the five of us. Here!’ He thrust the bottle towards Sanya, but jerked it back, wagging his finger, tut tutting at her, laughing, drunk some more.

The turbaned cracked some lewd jokes – coaxing him to think of the women in Delhi he could buy with the money they had.

But his friend was having none of it. The drink had focused his frustration, he wanted the girl first – once he’d had the girl he’d go back. It was simple, and to make sure everyone understood he got out of the car, dancing and booing at all the windows before lifting the bonnet to remove something from the engine. After he’d settled himself behind the wheel, he grinned toothlessly at us all and turned the ignition. An impotent whirring filled the car.

There are some moments in one’s life, in most people’s lives, when its continuation hangs in the balance – I believe that this was one such moment. The boy who gets his arm caught between two rocks, or the climber who crashes through the ice and into the void – there are times when the odds seem too heavily stacked. I saw in that moment, my wife raped, my son smashed against a rock, and myself thrown into the abyss.

But the instinct to stay alive was strong. Words we didn’t think we knew bubbled up and soothed the madman. Or Ravi would stop crying and do something funny – the driver would throw his hands in the air to show us how crazy he was being, pat his friend on the back, kiss him, shrug his shoulders, beg our forgiveness and climb out of the car. Each time we held our breath as we pictured him replacing whatever he’d removed beneath the bonnet, but time after time he came back grinning, wagging his finger at us as though we’d nearly tricked him, as though he’d almost fallen for it. He would shake the back door, start boxing his friend who would whimper and silently fold into the corner of the passenger seat – god knows what horrors he’d witnessed this man commit before. And there were long moments when he cried and wept, either for himself or for us. Once he stretched out a hand to stroke Batuk… but Sanya recoiled, just a fraction; and he’d reared up and slapped her face, lunged to take Batuk from her until the turbaned one dragged him off. At times everyone was crying; at others some sort of intimacy emerged as if raw emotions swithering around would slip into anyone who’d give them expression for a while.  And then, out of the blue, after a long exhaustive slumbering silence he announced he was taking us back.  We sat up, wiped our filthy tear-stained faces as if preparing to meet someone important and watched, too tired for cynicism, too tired to really take it in, just a stirring of faint hope as we strained to see through the windscreen, building to a ripple of intoxicated expectation and childish eagerness as he got back behind the wheel and fired up. I gathered Ravi to my chest – the change of rhythm had woken him and I didn’t want him to cry.

But instead of backing up he slammed his foot on the accelerator.

In a shattered second I flicked off the lock, flung the door open, pulled Sanya after me and started to run, Ravi’s cries muffled against me. I didn’t look back, couldn’t look back – we just ran, ran for our lives up the black mountain – ran as though we had wings, ran forever…

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Badgers to cull Britain’s Tories

I realise this topic has gone off the boil, but I came across it the other days and thought it worthy of a post. 

A systematic cull of Britain’s Tory population looks set to go ahead after senior badgers brushed aside objections from scientists and conservationists. Badgers have been arguing for years that the cull is necessary to protect Britain’s dairy farms from diseases like xenophobia and a poor grasp of basic science. Having rejected as inhumane a plan involving copies of the Daily Telegraph laced with strychnine, the badgers instead will use specially trained badger marksmen and intend to reduce the Tory population by one third over two years.

“We understand that the public have a nostalgic affection for Tories,” said the spokesbadger for the Department of Rural Affairs, “so we promise not to shoot that scruffy blonde one in London that everybody likes.”

The prospect of gun-toting badgers roaming the House of Commons worries some, but farmers are delighted. “I had a Tory on my farm last week,” said one frustrated landowner, “and since then the cows have been jeering at the sheep and telling them to go back home to where they came from. I had to have the whole herd destroyed.”

“All my cows keep going off and protesting about windfarms,” said another. “Our milk production has almost stopped!”

One farmer was more directly affected. “Eric Pickles sneaked onto my farm last week and ate half my cows,” he said.

However, the badgers’ plan is not backed by scientific evidence.  “Culling Tories won’t reduce xenophobia among cows.” said one scientist. “We believe the increase in Bovine Xenophobia and scientific ignorance is caused by the new practice of feeding cattle pulped copies of the Daily Mail.”

Some bloke off Springwatch agreed. “Tories are a vital part of the political ecosystem. If you kill too many, then more dangerous animals will move in to fill the vacuum, like Ukippers. Last time the Tory population dwindled too far, we got ten years of Tony Blair. I think the badgers need to think a bit more about this policy.”

Salt Cuts in Winter

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off soon enough. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh.

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents were swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Mum usually came with us,  but that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him. She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money Mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground.

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice.

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself preparing to sprint home for help, but my legs wouldn’t work.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone,  or the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see …

I should have gone for help. If I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible….

It was then I stood up, kicking over the bag of drinks and saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back, picking up his bag of snowballs, leaving… But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything. I swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

Adam and Batuk were sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine.

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if we went as a family.

In the end their presence was like having a cut that won’t scab.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school and I could tell they were pleased to be packing. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

 

 

 

 

 

Salt cuts in winter

 

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off soon enough. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh.

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan!) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents may have been swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Although Mum usually came with us, that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him. She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money Mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground.

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice.

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself preparing to sprint home for help, but my legs wouldn’t work.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone, nor could I shout out the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me, sniggering.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and then someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, snow spluttering out, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see them…

I should have gone for help… if I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible….

It was then I stood up, kicking over the bag of cold hot-chocolates and saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back, picking up his bag of snowballs, going… But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything. I swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

Adam and Batuk were sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine.

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if we went as a family.

In the end their presence was an irritant.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school. You could tell they were pleased to be packing, and having them around was like having a cut that won’t scab. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salt cuts in Winter

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off soon enough. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh.

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan!) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents may have been swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Although Mum usually came with us, that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him. She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money Mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground.

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice.

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself preparing to sprint home for help, but my legs wouldn’t work.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone, or the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me, sniggering.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and then someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, snow spluttering out, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see them…

I should have gone for help… if I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible….

It was then I stood up, kicking over the bag of cold hot-chocolates and saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back, picking up his bag of snowballs, going… But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything. I swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

Adam and Batuk were sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine.

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if we went as a family.

In the end their presence was an irritant.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school. You could tell they were pleased to be packing, and having them around was like having a cut that won’t scab. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

Salt cuts in winter

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off within weeks. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.  

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh. 

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents may have been swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Although Mum usually came with us, that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money Mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground. 

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice. 

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself preparing to sprint home for help, but my legs wouldn’t work.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone, nor could I shout out the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me, sniggering.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and then someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, snow spluttering out, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see them…

I should have gone for help… if I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible….

It was then I stood up, kicking over the bag of cold hot-chocolates and saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back, picking up his bag of snowballs, going… But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything. I swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

Adam and Batuk were sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine. 

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if we went as a family.

In the end their presence was an irritant.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school. You could tell they were pleased to be packing, and having them around was like having a cut that won’t scab. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

 

Salt Cuts in Winter

 

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off within weeks. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh.

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents may have been swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Although Mum usually came with us, that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground.

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice.

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself creeping backwards along the fence making it through the gates and across the road, unconsciously preparing perhaps for a sprint home for help.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone, nor could I shout out the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me, sniggering.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and then someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, snow spluttering out, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see them…

It was then I stood up. What were Danny and the others doing? I should have gone for help…if I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible…. Miserable I slumped down the wall, and hugged my knees.

But then suddenly four of them were striding towards her, heads sunk into their chests. I raced round the corner. They hadn’t seen me, and once they were out of sight I flew back into the park, slipping back under the bush, kicking over the bag of cold hot-chocolates as I pushed through. What lads were left were looking around, no chanting now. I saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back. But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything.  I knew they were leaving, so I stood up, swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

They were both sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine.

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if they went as a family.

In the end their presence was an irritant.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school. You could tell they were pleased to be packing, and having them around was like having a cut that won’t scab. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

 

 

Black Mountain

 

It is 2016. I am an old man now and have returned, after thirty-one years, to what is left of my grandfather’s house in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Lord Krishna’s birth place.

I am sitting on a moss-covered stone slab that would have formed part of the grand stair before the house was gutted by fire and abandoned. There is much shade, many trees have grown where there were once rooms, but where I sit there is a patch of bright sunlight and it is warm.

Leaning back against a half-pillar, I shut my eyes and find myself thrown back thirty-one years to the mid-seventies when Ravi, my son, almost a year old, was taking his first unsteady steps.

It had been a hectic three days crammed with feasts, old friends and new faces. On the fourth, Sanya and I escaped the socializing and took a lift to Mathura, spent the day wandering through the market, sitting in chi shops, playing with Ravi, reading. Around tea time, wanting to eek out our time together, we decided to walk the few miles back to my parents’ house rather than take a taxi.  Ravi, like many small creatures, loved being high up, and sat on my shoulders like a tiny grinning Buddha. A faint tingle brushes my neck like an echo – even now I can feel his chubby thighs bouncing and rocking cowboy-style in rhythm with my steps.

It was early spring; a green fuzz was forcing its way through the cold soil, but still it would be a few weeks before a tangle of wild flowers cloaked the hillsides. The track curved steeply at first, giving us a long view of the river as it rose gently towards the falls. We must have been walking an hour when Sanya twisted her ankle. Although it wasn’t a bad sprain – indeed, she could hobble reasonably well with the help of a short branch – but it was beginning to swell – it would not be strong enough to take her home. So we sat on the verge in the softening sunshine to wait for a lift. No cars came. The road petered out after my parents’ house – there was still a link to the main Delhi road but it was seldom used.  We knew Ravi would soon be tired and once the sun dipped behind the mountain it would be cold. I decided to return to Mathura – if I met a car, well and good, if I didn’t I would be back with a taxi before dark.

Ravi waved the tiny fingers of one hand at me while he toyed with Sanya’s breast proprietorially, putting her nipple between his teeth like the butt of a cigarette, wagging his face from side to side so it tickled the inside of his lips. I kissed his forehead and ran. It was steep in places and stony – I can still recall the giddy feeling of almost catapulting head over heels, my legs unable to keep up with the building momentum.

 

I found a cab on the outskirts of the village. The driver was lounging across the bonnet, smoking a bide, and waved me away. He was waiting for a friend, he said, as he nodded towards a young blue-turbaned sheikh, carrying a food bag. After they’d eaten, he said, they were heading home to Delhi – couldn’t wait to leave what he described as ‘this hell-hole’. I pulled out my wallet and rifled through a wad of notes, taking out three times the normal fare. It wasn’t far, I said, and they could join the back road to Delhi without doubling back. He agreed and I climbed into the back seat.

Sanya was sitting on a rock. The sun had left this side of the mountain and she was cold, had been straining for engine sounds for the last ten minutes. As I opened the car door and received a wriggling and delighted Ravi into my arms, I noticed how the sheikh eyed up Sanya, saw the way he disapproved of the western bias of her dress.

At first we headed towards the house; then, with no warning, the driver swung a left into an old quarry, forced a gear-crunching three-point turn and roared back the way we’d come accelerating dangerously whilst barking at me to shut the hell up. As we swung down the Delhi road I turned around, hoping to see a car or truck to whom I might signal for help, but all I could see was the glare from the sun reflected in a blizzard of orange sand. After a few miles, he threw a left. I was very scared by now – I knew this track lead to a precipitous dead-end. I could feel Sanya shaking beside me and Ravi was beginning to whimper.

Then the road disappeared into vapour as the headlights beamed off into nothing. The sheikh slammed on the brakes, stopping just metres from the edge. Immediately he climbed from the car and sauntered to the door beside Sanya. I punched down the back locks and he pushed his face against the window to leer at Sanya. Ravi began to cry. Kicking the door in frustration he returned to the driver’s seat, reached bellow it and pulled out a bottle of whisky.

‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you…’ He shouted, gulping back the liquor.

Sanya and I locked eyes – she was near to tears, her hands shaking out of control as she unfastened her blouse for Ravi to suckle. ‘What is it you want from us – money? Here take everything I’ve got.’ I held out my wallet.  I hadn’t noticed before that the driver had small pointed ears and his long greasy hair had begun to unwind from the hard black knot on his head. He took my wallet, pushed his hair from his eyes with feminine affectation and counted the notes, slipping them into his pocket before tossing the empty wallet back over the bench seat. Then he lurched towards Sanya and made a grab for her blouse. I pushed him off, snatched up the stick that Sanya had used, and raised it to threaten him.

‘Steady up’. The man held up his hands as though offended – as though he hadn’t meant anything by it. Then he began to giggle, slapping one hand over his mouth, while the other rammed the bottle up against his friend’s chest. I was grateful that Sanya was bent over Ravi, unable to see the fear in the boy’s eyes, as he drank obediently.

‘Take us back; I’ll kill you if you hurt her – take us back and we’ll not say anything – the baby needs changing – come on, take the money, man – just take us home…’ I pleaded.

But the driver just laughed, snatched the bottle from his friend and drank some more. ‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you.’ He mumbled taking several gulps. ‘Why you so boring? The night is young – you’ve already made us late – we will have the party together – just the five of us. Here!’ He thrust the bottle towards Sanya, but jerked it back, wagging his finger, tut tutting at her, laughing, drunk some more.

The turbaned cracked some lewd jokes – coaxing him to think of the women in Delhi he could buy with the money they had.

But his friend was having none of it. The drink had focused his frustration, he wanted the girl first – once he’d had the girl he’d go back. It was simple, and to make sure everyone understood he got out of the car, dancing and booing at all the windows before lifting the bonnet to remove something from the engine. After he’d settled himself behind the wheel, he grinned toothlessly at us all and turned the ignition. An impotent whirring filled the car.

There are some moments in one’s life, in most people’s lives, when its continuation hangs in the balance – I believe that this was one such moment. The boy who gets his arm caught between two rocks, or the climber who crashes through the ice and into the void – there are times when the odds seem too heavily stacked. I saw in that moment, my wife raped, my son smashed against a rock, and myself thrown into the abyss.

But the instinct to stay alive was strong. Words we didn’t think we knew bubbled up and soothed the madman. Or Ravi would stop crying and do something funny – the driver would throw his hands in the air to show us how crazy he was being, pat his friend on the back, kiss him, shrug his shoulders, beg our forgiveness and climb out of the car. Each time we held our breath as we pictured him replacing whatever he’d removed beneath the bonnet, but time after time he came back grinning, wagging his finger at us as though we’d nearly tricked him, as though he’d almost fallen for it. He would shake the back door, start boxing his friend who would whimper and silently fold into the corner of the passenger seat – god knows what horrors he’d witnessed this man commit before. And there were long moments when he cried and wept, either for himself or for us. Once he stretched out a hand to stroke Batuk… but Sanya recoiled, just a fraction; and he’d reared up and slapped her face, lunged to take Batuk from her until the turbaned one dragged him off. At times everyone was crying; at others some sort of intimacy emerged as if raw emotions swithering around would slip into anyone who’d give them expression for a while.  And then, out of the blue, after a long exhaustive slumbering silence he announced he was taking us back.  We sat up, wiped our filthy tear-stained faces as if preparing to meet someone important and watched, too tired for cynicism, too tired to really take it in, just a stirring of faint hope as we strained to see through the windscreen, building to a ripple of intoxicated expectation and childish eagerness as he got back behind the wheel and fired up. I gathered Ravi to my chest – the change of rhythm had woken him and I didn’t want him to cry.

But instead of backing up he slammed his foot on the accelerator.

In a shattered second I flicked off the lock, flung the door open, pulled Sanya after me and started to run, Ravi’s cries muffled against me. I didn’t look back, couldn’t look back – we just ran, ran for our lives up the black mountain – ran as though we had wings, ran forever…

Anyone for darts?

‘Tell me, Ross.’ The head teacher said as he deliberately and very slowly squinted down the barrel of a pencil. ‘Is there a reason for this sudden deterioration in your behaviour? I’m afraid I haven’t been able to discuss this, this latest distraction with Mr Hyslop due to him taking a few days leave, so it looks like we’ll have to muddle through – just the two of us.’

 

Aiming the wretched pencil directly at Ross’s head he shut one eye and flexed his forearm delicately and at a decreasing angle until it came to a threatening halt. He remained motionless and meditative for a few seconds and then, as if remembering where he was, put the pencil down. ‘Sorry Ross. I’ve got a darts match tonight – was hoping to get away early for a practise… So let’s do this, shall we?’

 

Giving the pencil one more sly aim before opening a drawer in his desk, he dropped it inside.

 

Ross had made up his mind a long time ago that Mr Leadbetter was mad, the pencil confirmed it, and Ross begun to stand up, but the noise of a gun going off made him rethink. Only it wasn’t a gun; it was the front legs of the head teacher’s chair hitting the floorboards. But there was something in the force behind it, and the way Mr Leadbetter rammed his glasses down onto his nose, that made him sit up and pay attention. Mr Leadbetter didn’t speak, though. Instead he lifted two A4 sheets of paper off his desk and hid his expression behind them for what seemed like an awkwardly long time.

 

‘Sorry about that, Ross. I wanted to read back over the year. A promising and intelligent boy. Well-mannered and conscientious.’ He sat back and resettled his glasses onto his forehead. ‘But sadly this all changed over the last few months. Let me quote. A bright young man heading for trouble. His attitude towards authority is challenging. Unable to focus on work, affecting apathy towards all subjects. Social difficulties. You’ve already been excluded once and have a lot of unexplained absences.’ He lowered the sheets and let them drop. ‘Fair summary?’

 

Ross shrugged.

 

‘Because.’ Mr Leadbetter went on, patting the papers. ‘Because, the thing is, Ross, if you keep this kind of thing up, your prospects of leaving school with some useful grades, and by useful I mean grades that might help you get into college or pick up an apprenticeship of some kind, will be compromised. Have you taken that pencil by the way?’

‘You put it in the drawer, sir.’

 

‘So I did. See? You’re a bright lad and I don’t want you to fail. Any ideas what I should do with you?’

 

‘No, Sir.’

 

‘Anything going on at home I should know about? Any reason you’re late most mornings?’

 

Briefly Ross felt the shame of his father leaving for the last time. It had been very sudden. He’d missed the bus, was hoping for a lift to school, sitting on a stack of blocks beside the garage, muttering under his breath in a range of emphasis and tones. ‘Dad, can I get a lift?’ or ‘Dad, the bus was early and I missed it?’ or even ‘Dad could you drop me at school on your way to work?’ And when his father appeared through the front door, he’d stood up, and prepared to begin. But the withering look on his father’s face erased the small speech and skewed his mouth into a frightened smile as he flattened out against the garage wall. And when his father climbed into the sleek black two-seater and Ross had willed his legs to move, they wouldn’t, so instead of running round the side of the car like any other boy would do, he’d stood like a dummy and watched the wheels bite the gravel and speed away. And that was the last time he’d seen him. Or heard from him or anything.

 

‘Well?’ Mr Leadbetter said.

 

‘Sometimes I miss the bus. Then get a lift. Makes me late sometimes.’

 

‘So that bus might be something you make an effort to catch. Got any idea of what you want to do when you leave school?’

 

‘Nuh.’ Ross shifted uneasily in his seat. The longest term thing he’d ever pictured was moving in with his father, how to get money to score, and, of course, Abi…

 

‘Maybe it’s time you did, because in no time at all you’ll be asked to choose your subjects for Standard Grade; you need to get a picture of what you want to do in life. What does your father do, Ross?’

 

‘He’s the manager at the Soroba Hotel.’

 

‘Hospitality. A very good career. Does that appeal to you at all?’

 

‘Not thought about it, Sir – maybe.’

 

The conversation ran along these lines, with the head teacher vividly describing some of his own less orthodox ambitions when he was a lad, until Ross, despite doing his best to remain numb, found his mind forming a daft picture of himself as Alan Sugar or a vet or a lawyer or the owner of a chain of hotels with a massive salary and a holiday home and at least one fast car…

 

‘But without qualifications, Ross,’ Mr Leadbetter continued after the long pause, ‘without keeping your focus and your emotions under control, you won’t have any of that, in fact…’ He leaned forward in his seat ‘In fact, I’d say that, with the way things are looking right now, you’re treading a very fine line, Ross. Because once you stop caring, once you actively start making the lives of your teachers hell, once that happens, it’s very easy to slip through the net. And some do. We do our best, but a lot of young people are leaving school without a lot going for them. I’m sure your father would feel very disappointed if you became one of those boys.’

Ross stared down between his knees.

 

‘Tell you what. We’re going to arrange a meeting. I’ll invite your parents and Mr Hyslop to it and we’ll talk things over. We’re only human, Ross, no one at this school wants you to fail, but we can’t do this without your co-operation. You are the hinge, so to speak, on which the door to your future depends. As I said, I’m know you’re a good lad at heart, and a bright one. But poor behaviour has consequences. Do we understand each other?’

 

Ross lifted his gaze briefly and found to his surprise that the head teacher’s face was softer than he remembered and a lot friendlier too. A painful lump gathered in his throat and he tried to clear it. ‘Yes, sir.’

 

And along with the lump came the beginnings of a hazy picture in his mind of his parents sitting in this office or another one just like it: his father was shaking the head teacher’s hand and smiling and wagging his head in tearful disbelief and approval…

 

‘Well, good. And because I’m a big softy I’m going to recommend that we don’t exclude you this time. However, I want you to do something for me – I want you,’ he said holding up a pamphlet, ‘I want you to take this booklet on careers and look through it, see if anything takes your fancy. And I want to talk again tomorrow. Okay? How does that sound?’

 

‘Good.’ Ross made eye contact for the first time. ‘Thank you.’

 

‘Good lad. In my opinion, there’s nothing like seeing yourself in the future to find yourself in the present. At least, it helped me when I was your age. Now, Ross, I believe Mr Walters is waiting for you. You’ll be wanting to apologise for your outburst won’t you, and complete the work you’ve missed in class?’ He smiled. ‘You can go now – unless there’s something else you’d like to say.’

Over the course of the last fifteen minutes Ross had forgotten. But now he remembered and stood unsteadily. He picked up the chair he’d been sitting on and threw it hard at the window.

 

‘Nothing else, no,’ he said.

 

 

Review/All the light we cannot see

Where to begin?

I read About Grace by Antony Doerr while I was stumbling through my first novel and the beauty of each sentence so affected me I almost gave up (writing). It was going to be too hard.  Since then, whenever I’m faced with snow – real or imagined – some of his words return.

Obscurely though, since that first fling, I never sought him out. Then recently, I noticed my daughter was reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was like being reminded of an old school friend and doing a Facebook search – I downloaded this on the spot and began it that night.

All The Light We Cannot See is a story about two children caught up in the atrocities of World War 2. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind. Her father builds her a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood. Over many months she memorises its every detail and after countless frustrating, furious and tearful attempts, she finally finds herself able to move around the city alone. When the Nazis invade Paris they leave their home for the relative safety of Saint-Malo where an elderly relative, cared for by a kindly matron lives in a six story house by the sea.

The other child, Werner, is an orphan, who along with his sister is raised in a home in a mining town in Germany. His future is down the mines. Obscurity, an early death. By chance he finds a broken radio in a back alley near the orphanage and becomes obsessed by it. He spends all his free time rebuilding it from scraps of rubbish, until word gets around of his special talent and he gains a reputation, which eventually reaches the ears of someone important. He gains a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth – a way out of the mines, Werner says to himself, flattered by the attention, and the cake he was offered when he easily fixes the army man’s radio. Only his sister gets a sense of foreboding and begs him to refuse the offer. But it was too late for that. In no time Werner was in the back of a truck tracking resistance radios, one by one, shutting his eyes to the killings, sweeping through occupied France to Saint-Malo, where we know Marie-Laure lives, alone now with her great uncle in the tall house by the sea, playing their part to save their beloved France…

I don’t remember if I was gripped immediately, all I remember is that those following weeks tore me apart. It’s not just that every sentence is a work of art all on its own, worthy of a second look, but that it’s so scary and inevitable and gripping and important and relevant, that to be honest I could barely bring myself to pick it up, because I knew that I was about to be really really scared and sick and ashamed. Anthony Doerr does that – he draws us in, so that to turn away would make us inhuman – would mean we didn’t care. It may be too late for all those children who were sucked into the killing machine of that war but if I couldn’t even stay with them during the pages of a novel would I turn away in Syria, Iraq, Palestine – all those other places that are to come – would I? Do I? Well of course I do – we all do – every day. So I read on; sometimes, to my shame, galloped on, to get it over with, to find out – I had to find out, though I knew there’d be no comfort  in it – that’s another thing Doerr would never do  – he’d never cheat the truth.

And as I write this, a few weeks later, I’m moved all over again… filled with the horror, the wonder, the unbearable love I felt for the two of them, the genius of Anthony Doerr, not a careless word as he courageously describes the sights and sounds of the very worst and best of what it means to be human, an assault on my senses which I shall never forget.

I will not wait so long to download the next one. And nor should you.