(Many of the details of Glyn’s life have been changed- Ed)Glyn Southsea was having an ultradian experience. His melatonin levels were rising and lack of physical and mental activity caused his brainwaves entered the Theta range. He lost any awareness of his body and his surroundings. The ratio of signal strength between his senses and thoughts changed; his senses were sidelined and stored while his thoughts took over. Imagery that was normally slippery and transient became solid and enduring. Complex conundrums passed like Zen clouds and puzzles effortlessly fell into solutions. Sounds and music bathed his mental ear with FM clarity and beautiful pictures swam in front of him, conjured up out of nothing at a mere flick of his will...
But all was not well for long. Antagonistic forces entered his magickal kingdom polluting the purity of his internal omnipotence...
His heaven was collapsing. He watched frustrated as his creative works fell apart. He knew that they were not meant to last forever, but they had come into being and existed for a temporary purpose that was not yet fulfilled...
The increased volume of the voice wrenched him viciously back into what was known in those days as reality. “Yes, Miss?” he answered instinctively as his surroundings all hit him in synch: the classroom, the other pupils, his desk in front of him. “Sorry, Miss, I didn’t hear what you said.”
Mrs. Klane shrugged her shoulders, frowned and put her arms akimbo, a characteristic gesture of hers. “I didn’t say anything, Southsea. I was just wondering why you were sitting there like a waxwork staring out of the window.”
His classmates tittered and gave him amused sideways glances, even though it was pure good fortune and timing that hadn’t put they themselves into Mrs. Klane’s gunsights.
“You were daydreaming, weren’t you, Southsea.”
Glyn felt himself blanche. “Oh no, Miss. I was just thinking about an answer to a question you asked us earlier.”
“Erm... what were the names of all the Iron Masters?”
Mrs. Klane breathed out loudly through her nose, a nasal sigh. “Southsea, we did the Industrial Revolution last week. We’ve moved on to the Poor Law now. So unless you were daydreaming the History we’ll be doing next week, you’re not going to find answers to the questions I’ve set you now, are you?”
“He is history, Miss!” piped up Martin Eaves from the front of the classroom and then guffawed through his pursed lips and buried his face in his arms. The rest of the class rippled with merriment.
“Quiet!” snapped the teacher. “How old are you, Southsea?”
“Then can you please behave like a twelve-year-old instead of a five year old. You’re going to have to learn to pay attention and stop daydreaming.” She returned her attention to the whiteboard with a final withering glance that meant I’ll be watching you! “Right! By 1844 up to 7 percent of the British people were accommodated for at least some of the time in workhouses...”
It wasn’t true; Glyn hadn’t been staring out of the window; he’d been staring at Carol Rush. Carol sat four rows in front of him beside the window with her beautiful sandy dark brown hair cascading over her elegant shoulders. Every so often she turned her head and although he couldn’t see her face he did catch an occasional side view of her pert nose and flicking eyelashes. He looked down at his schoolbag. The zip was open and he could just make out Moon-Pie looking up at him. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong, was I, Moon-Pie?” Glyn whispered. “It’s just that History is so boring.” Moon-Pie’s eyes glinted sympathetically in the gloom beneath the desk.
The bell rang for lunchtime and as the class trooped out into the playground Martin Eaves caught up with him. “Hey, Glynny! How’s it going?” Glyn had come to recognize this gesture as a form of apology. Martin was his friend. Of all the children he shared his schooldays with Martin was the nicest. Most of the time he didn’t tease Glyn and he let him join in with the football and other games; in fact Martin had only beaten Glyn up on two occasions. “Glynny, that old bitch Klane don’t half get up my arse! I’ll be glad when she’s gone next year.”
The queue for school dinner was as raucous as always. Several hundred boys and girls flocked into the hall chattering hungrily. Glyn, Martin and a few more of his group stood in a circle near the door. Glyn was torn between wanting to stay close to them and be near to Carol Rush, perhaps close enough to get a sniff of her perfume. He was backed up against the ancient wooden door to the hall and he fiddled with the worn brass handle as he tried to catch her scent before it became overwhelmed by the aroma of cabbage, gravy and potato. Martin and his other friends produced football stickers and gazed at them with admiring gasps as if they were precious works of art. The ritual swapping auction followed; this was similarly passionate and two of them became angry, pointing fingers and swearing until they caught the attention of Mr. Spoxton, who barked at them like guard dog. As Glyn settled onto the hard communal bench to eat his dinner he noticed the Sneighland gang on a nearby table looking at him and made a mental note to leave school that afternoon via the back entrance by the gym.
He was away before the Hometime bell had stopped ringing. His trick seemed to work. As he made his way up the concrete alley between the kitchen and the boy’s gym he heard the distant shrill voices of the other schoolchildren fading as the throng moved out of the front entrance onto the main road. He decided to wait ten minutes in order to give the Sneighland gang time to disperse before braving the streets himself. Roger and Wayne Sneighland were twin brothers in Year 9, the one above Glyn’s, who loved beating up smaller and/or less-aggressive kids more than anybody else in the school. Despite there being only two of them, they were always accompanied in their hobby by at least two or three out of a pool of about a dozen right-hand men. They were always at the front of the queue for dinner and always made sure they were team-picked first in playground games, even though they didn’t know one end of a football from the other. Their pockets were always full of other children’s money and their bags always full of their crisps and chocolate bars. Those children handed them over willingly without much of a fight; it just wasn’t worth it.
Glyn sat down on the edge of the crumbling cement trapdoor jamb which led to some hidden world beneath the gym that only the caretaker knew of. Here he was sheltered by the red-brick walls of the gym and kitchen on both sides and couldn’t be seen from inside the school. He could be spotted from Beechtree Lane outside the gates, but that was a very narrow and quiet road with just a few houses which backed onto a park. There was a small side-gate leading into the school and a carpark with about a dozen spaces for the teachers and other staff. The gate was surmounted by a modest metal signboard that proclaimed: Hertfordshire Education Trust- Belswill High School.
Glyn loosened his uniform collar and pulled off his tie. The fresh spring air felt good on his neck and throat. He sighed with contentment and, seeing as he now had a bit of privacy, opened his bag and took out Moon-Pie. “Hi, Moon-Pie.” He said, “Sorry to keep you shut away all day, but there was nowhere safe for me to take me you out.”
Moon-Pie looked up at him affectionately as he nestled in Glyn’s hands. Moon-Pie had lovely eyes; they were russet in colour and made out of several layers of glass, giving the illusion of an iris and pupil. His body was modeled on that of a sheep and, appropriately enough therefore, he was made of wool. He had four jointless, dangly legs that swung beneath his body when he was held up. He had a similar tail at the back, loose and delicate like a catkin. The best thing about him was his smile. It was a curved line of black stitching that dissected his face almost completely in half giving him a friendly and cheerful appearance. Moon-Pie was always on Glyn’s side; ever patient, ever comforting, ever encouraging. He was never critical, never annoyed with Glyn’s tales of woe and never unkind. Glyn and Moon-Pie had been together since Glyn was six years old and nobody knew he had him. In fact his parents thought Moon-Pie had been thrown in the bin; “Glyn, you’re getting to old to play with things like this.” His father had said. “What will your friends at school think? How do you think it makes us look when the neighbours call in and see you carrying that sheep around?... Come on! Hand him over!” Glyn had climbed out of his bedroom window late at night to rescue Moon-Pie from the dustbin; he was laying a pool of cold porridge and rotting potato peelings and Glyn had had to give him a bath before his parents woke up.
“Moon-Pie, I saw Carol today in History. She’s a really nice girl; I wish I could see her outside school, get to talk to her properly. Martin was OK today... but I don’t like what he said when old Klane was having a go at me. The bag was open; did you hear it?”
Moon-Pie of course never spoke, but Glyn always knew what he was thinking.
“What? Is Martin no good for me? Don’t you think he’s a good friend for me?”
Even though Glyn could read Moon-Pie’s thoughts he often wished that the little sheep would respond vocally, like Boggin used to. In fact Glyn had become attached to Moon-Pie on the rebound from his grief at losing Boggin. Boggin used to speak to Glyn, in fact it was sometimes hard to get a word in edgeways with him. However Glyn deeply regretted the arguments he’d had with Boggin and hardly a day went by when he didn’t long to hear his lilting voice. Glyn was a boy with early memories; he recalled being in a cot, wearing a nappy, drinking milk from a bottle, and Boggin had been there for all that time. He stood beside Glyn’s crib, smiling down at him by his mother's shoulder; he played with Glyn’s teddy bears and watched TV with Glyn, often making very intelligent criticisms on some curious aspect of Teletubbies or Pingu that hadn’t occurred to Glyn. Boggin was always the same height as Glyn was, even as Glyn grew. He was a small man with purple skin and he wore a white suit with a pointed hood. He had extended features: a big, long nose, thick protruding lips and a jutting chin; and his eyes were like soft, black marbles with layers of brown around the edges. His voice was high-pitched and he spoke to Glyn in perfect English, but with a strange accent. It was several years before Glyn understood that nobody else could see Boggin except him, and this was quite a shocking revelation. However he was still perturbed and confused at his parents’ irritation whenever he mentioned Boggin to them. But Glyn soon got used to it. He and Boggin played happily in the house, garden, nursery school and park. They played Hide-and-Seek, Forty-Forty, Hunt-the-Slipper and every fantasy game from sitting on the back of a settee pretending to drive a tractor, to putting their heads underwater in the bath pretending to be deep-sea divers. Except from odd occasions when he went away for a couple of hours, or sometimes overnight, he never left Glyn’s side. Boggin was such a constant companion that life without him was simply unthinkable. This is why when Boggin told him he was going to have to leave him, Glyn didn’t understand. “You’re six years old now, Glyn. You’re a big boy now and you don’t need me anymore.”
“But why!?” Glyn had demanded as the devastating truth sank in.
“You’re changing as you get older. Soon, having me around will be very bad for you. You won’t be able to talk properly to other boys and girls. You need to learn to do that; you need to be able to play OK with them.”
“I won’t tell anybody about you! Just like you told me not to with Mum and Dad!”
“They’ll find out in the end, and then they’ll take you to the doctor and he’ll give you medicine that will make me invisible to you.”
“No they won’t. Medicine makes you better if you’re ill. And why would you go invisible when I’m the one taking the medicine?”
“I can’t explain that bit, Glyn... I’m sorry.”
“Will you ever come back?”
“Maybe one day when you’re older; if you really need me.”
And then just like that he was gone and Glyn never saw him again. He looked down at Moon-Pie and suddenly realized that the little woolen sheep had eyes that reminded him of Boggin’s.
It was too late to escape; he was cut off. While he’d been sitting there talking to Moon-Pie the Sneighland gang had crept up on him; they must have guessed Glyn’s getaway route and walked round to the back gate to intercept him. Now they’d encircled the alcove by the trapdoor boxing in their target. Roger and Wayne were today flanked by their usual lieutenants, two other Year 9 boys whom Glyn knew only by sight and had never spoke to. The Sneighlands were identical twins who were indistinguishable. They were both equally misshapen and podgy with circular faces, mean little eyes, uneven, stained teeth and thin lips. They leered with pleasure as they sensed his panic and closed in on him. Glyn dropped his bag and clutched Moon-Pie to his throat to protect him.
Roger sniggered. “What’s this, Southsea? You playing with teddies?” His three accomplices laughed with derision right on cue, as if Roger had just told the funniest joke they’d ever heard. “Don’t you think you’re a bit old for that?”
Glyn’s back hit the wall and he pressed himself into the square corner by the trapdoor.
“Can we cuddle him for a minute too?” jeered Wayne in a mock-childlike tone. Both twins lunged forward, mirroring each other’s movements and seized Glyn’s jacket; their hands were grubby and fat; their nails small and cracked. Glyn then noticed that one of the other boys was holding up his mobile phone sideways in front of his face, clearly filming what was going on. Glyn tightened his grip on Moon-Pie, but his attackers were too strong and forced his fingers apart. “NO!” yelled Glyn. “Give him back to me!”
The Sneighlands laughed as they rolled Moon-Pie over and over in their hands and then Wayne drop-kicked him roughly up into the air. Glyn ran forward to try and catch him, but one of the boys held him back. The boy with the phone kept the cam rolling, capturing their exploits for posterity. Moon-Pie arced uncontrollably in the air, his limbs flopping about in freefall, and was neatly caught by Roger. Wayne and the other boy held Glyn firmly against the wall where he was helpless. Then, making sure that Glyn was watching, Roger seized one of Moon-Pie’s legs and pulled. The stitching ripped and the leg came away. Glyn could hear the little sheep’s silent scream of agony. All the boys chortled; Glyn tried to cry out but his vocal chords were petrified. Roger tossed the amputated leg up onto the low roof of the gym’s changing rooms. The other three legs and tail were all ripped off in the same way and followed suit. Then the bully produced a penknife, opened it theatrically like a stage knife-thrower and plunged the blade into Moon-Pie’s belly. The sheep’s stuffing poured out onto the ground at their feet; it consisted mostly of tiny lumps of pink polyurethane foam. Once the evisceration was complete Roger waved Moon-Pie’s saggy and deflated woolen skin in Glyn’s face. “Time to grow up, Southsea!” he sneered and tossed the little sheep’s body up onto the roof to join his dismembered limbs. Glyn could now hear nothing of Moon-Pie’s silent voice.
“STOP!” roared another voice.
“Spoxton!” shouted Wayne. “Shit!”
“All of you stand still right now!” barked Mr. Spoxton as he marched up the pathway towards the group.
The four bullies stepped back; Glyn’s legs gave way and he sank to his knees. The world around him rotated drunkenly and sounds seemed far away.
“What’s going on here!?”
“Nothing, Sir. We were all just messing about, weren’t we, Glynny?” He gave Glyn a nudge with his heel that conveyed a short but detailed message: Play along with us or you’ll get worse tomorrow!
“Didn’t look like it.” replied Mr. Spoxton raising his eyebrows. “It looked like you were bullying young Southsea here... You were weren’t you?”
The four hesitated for a moment and then Wayne blurted out: “But... but, Sir! He was playing with a cuddy toy!”
Mr. Spoxton hesitated, his eyes shuttled back and forth between Glyn and the other four boys for a few seconds. He pointed at the Sneighlands. “Alright, you lot, run along now.” The gang immediately obeyed and were out of sight around the corner in moments. Mr. Spoxton crouched down beside Glyn. “Come on, Southsea; we’d better take you to the nurse. Can you stand up?”
Glyn slowly eased himself to his feet; he was still unable to speak. His lungs were clogged and tender, tears and sweat clouded his eyes and his body burned where the Sneighlands had manhandled him. Mr. Spoxton loomed over him. He was similar in appearance to the Sneighlands, although about forty years older: rotund and dumpy, his body-parts all out of proportion to each other. His face had small features, his voice was loud and tinny and his breath stank of licorice and battery acid. He always wore the same very traditional brown suit with a stiff, tight collar. He gripped the shoulder of Glyn’s blazer roughly as he escorted him to the school’s front office to be given first aid by the nurse. Then he was made to wait in reception while his parents were called to come and collect him. Before they all left together for home Glyn was made to wait again while Mr. Spoxton had a private word with his mother and father. They all drove home together in silence. Glyn had his schoolbag on his lap. The zip was still open where he had taken Moon-Pie out and every so often he’d reach in his hand, almost subconsciously, to see if his wooly friend were still there.
Several weeks later something strange happened one morning. Glyn was sitting in his Physics class when Miss Graham, the art teacher, knocked on the door and came into the room smiling and asked the teacher taking the class if Glyn could be excused. “What’s going on, Miss?” asked Glyn as Miss Graham led him along the corridor to reception, but she just grinned at him, almost playfully. At reception Glyn joined a gaggle of seven other boys and girls from various years, most of them he didn’t know, and they were made to wait for a few minutes until they heard the familiar growl of the school minibus parking outside. Miss Graham drove them southwards out of Belswill, still persistently fielding the children’s questions about where they were going. They joined the motorway at Hatfield and headed into London; Glyn watched as the skyline slowly became more built-up. He usually did this from his parent’s car, but today it all looked mysteriously different. They exited the motorway and began navigating the streets of London; Miss Graham appeared slightly uncertain of her route and kept glancing at her sat-nav, but eventually they arrived at another school, one which was of a similar architecture and atmosphere. Glyn even recognized the identical aroma of cabbage and potato that heralded dinnertime as he and his fellow students were shown along the corridors. Their long journey ended in what looked like a typical Craft, Design and Technology classroom which smelt strongly of sawdust and oil. They were made to sit at rough benches on high stools and all around the walls were drills, lathes and shelves full of chisels, hammers and other tools. There were about two dozen other pupils in unfamiliar uniforms in the room already and as soon as Glyn’s group had taken their seats a woman came into the room. “Hello everybody, my name is Miss Gape.” Glyn exchanged curious and knowing glances with the children beside him. Teachers at their school never wore any kind of uniform, but rather like plainclothes police detectives, they were very easy to identify by their poise, manner and style of speech; Miss Gape was definitely not a teacher, in fact she looked more like a jewelry-seller at a market, dressed in jeans and a tie-died blouse. Her permed brown hair was held back by silk scarf and she was extremely thin. She continued: “This is a very different kind of class to the ones you normally have.” She beamed at them all in an overly-friendly manner, slightly false, Glyn thought. “This is not a class where you’ll be learning any subject, except the most important one of all: life. This class is called Education for Living.”
A girl on the bench in front of Glyn put up her hand. “But, Miss. We all know how to live. We’re breathing ain’t we? We all ate breakfast this morning.”
Miss Gape chuckled merrily. “Of course, of course, of course! But that’s not living, that’s just staying alive.”
Half the class frowned while they contemplated this apparently paradoxical statement while the other half laughed and started singing in falsetto: “Ha... ha... ha... ha... stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive!” while waving their index fingers in front of their bodies.
Miss Gape laughed along with them in a way no teacher ever did. “Don’t worry. It will all become very clear to you what I mean. Living is about more than just breathing and eating, it’s about being with other people, communicating with them, behaving towards them in a way that means they can communicate with you. It’s about fitting in with how other people think a respectful person should come across to them. This is what Education for Living is there to teach you.”
She went on describing the objective of her lesson for several minutes and Glyn didn’t understand a single word of what she said, but he was beginning to enjoy himself. He’d travelled a long way to a different school and was in a new classroom with new people; this made a nice change from the usual school routine. When Miss Gape said: “I know that some of you have experienced being bullied...” Glyn sat up and paid closer attention. “Hands up any of you who have been bullied at your schools this term.”
Glyn’s hand must have rocketed high into the air much faster than any of the others’ did because Miss Gape immediately turned to address him. “And what’s your name?”
“Glyn Southsea, Miss.”
“Right, Glyn. Would you like to stand up and come to the front of the class to tell us all about it?” She stood to one side and held out her hand invitingly.
Glyn was taken aback at being addressed by his Christian name; to all teachers he was forever “Southsea”. He felt nervous but very gleeful and vindicated as he stood up and walked forward to stand beside Miss Gape at her desk. Over the past few weeks, ever since his attack by the Sneighlands, Glyn had been possessed by vivid and consuming vengeance fantasies. He imagined himself ten feet tall, standing over the helpless Sneighlands, brandishing an axe as they pleaded for mercy. He then dismembered and disemboweled them as they had Moon-Pie and hurled their mutilated, blood-soaked, empty carcasses onto the roof of the gym. Now a great hope rose within him; was Miss Gape about the bring the Sneighlands out of the stationary cupboard bound in handcuffs and beat their bare bottoms with a cane while the class looked on? Miss Gape sat on the end of her desk and put her hands on her knees to lower her head to the level of Glyn’s; she tilted her head slightly to one side and smiled lightly in a caring manner. “So you were bullied at your school, Glyn?”
He nodded shyly, sensing the gaze of everybody in the room like radiated heat.
“Tell us what happened.”
Glyn began relating the experience of the attack by the Sneighlands. It was the first time that he’d dared completely debrief himself on what had passed during his ordeal and he immediately felt tears budding in his eyes. To begin with he wiped them away with quick, embarrassed movements, but after he’d continued a while he started weeping without hindrance. He didn’t even notice if the class were reacting or not. Miss Gape passed him a paper tissue to dry his eyes and pulled up a small chair for him to sit on, but never interrupted verbally. When he’d finished she bent over and embraced him affectionately; her hair smelt of henna and her perfume was musky, like an earthy forest. Then she took a chair of her own and sat facing him, leaning towards him again with her elbows on her knees; she stretched out her arm and caressed his shoulder. “It’s alright, Glyn.” She said, barely above a whisper. “Everything’s alright. You’re going to be fine.” Then she lifted her head and addressed the rest of the class: “Glyn has been very, very brave here today in sharing what happened to him with us, and I want you all to give him a big clap... Come on!”
The pupils in the room broke into a short round of self-conscious and ambivalent applause.
“I know a lot of you have had to face exactly the same things that Glyn has; it’s very common and you’re not alone. This is why it’s so good that you’ve come to this class because Education for Living is all about putting a stop to bullying, once and for all!”
This is it! thought Glyn. He wondered how the Sneighlands would feel when Miss Gape dragged them into the room to be caned; what glorious expressions of fear and pain would grace their foul complexions?
Miss Gape straightened up. “We’re now going to do a little role-playing, do you all know what that is?”
Role-playing? thought Glyn. This was supposedly some new punishment for bullies that this school had devised.
She pointed at a small blonde girl who looked like a Year 6 or 7. “What’s your name?”
“Please come to the front, Desiree.”
The girl obeyed.
“Now, Desiree, look at Glyn sitting there.”
She gave him a cheeky and uneasy smile; there were gaps in her mouth where her milk-teeth had recently fallen out.
“Now, how would it make you feel if you walked into this room, or passed him at breaktime one day, and saw him playing with his little cuddly sheep?”
“I’d think it was... weird, Miss.”
“Why weird, Desiree?”
“Because only little babies play with things like that. He’s older than that. He should be playing with older kids’ toys.”
“What kinds of toys do children Glyn’s age normally play with?”
She paused to think. “I-phones, Nintendo DS’, things like that.”
Miss Gape looked at Glyn and he lifted his head to meet her eyes. Her whole mien had changed; the sympathy and comfort had totally vanished and she now frowned down at him with a subtle scowl of disapproval. “Glyn, why don’t you play with an I-phone or a DS like other boys your age? Why do you play with a little toy sheep?” The rest of the class laughed at Glyn’s expense and Miss Gape didn’t try to stop them.
Glyn didn’t reply.
“Desiree, if you saw Glyn doing something weird like that do you think you’d want to be his friend?”
“Would it make you want to sit next to him in class?”
“What would it make you want to do?”
Desiree lowered her eyes and shuffled her feet.
“Would it make you feel upset or embarrassed?”
She nodded uncertainly.
“Would it make you feel like saying something unfriendly to Glyn, maybe shout rude things at him?”
Another identical nod.
Miss Gape paused for effect. “What if you were a boy, Desiree? Do you think you might be tempted to go up to Glyn and hit him?”
Desiree met Glyn’s eyes for a split second; no emotion or communication passed to him through them. “Yes, Miss.”
Glyn felt his ears glow and his cheeks flush; he shook his head, not knowing what to say. Tears pushed against his cornea again and he blinked hard to suppress them.
Miss Gape sneered at his discomfort, almost in the same way that the Sneighlands had. “Do you understand the mistake you made, Glyn?” She turned to the class and repeated the same question paraphrased: “Do you all understand the mistake Glyn made? He decided to behave in a way that made him stand out from other children; he didn’t make any effort to fit in with what is considered normal.”
She turned to the whiteboard, popped the lid off a pen and wrote the word on the board with a capital first letter. “Do you all understand what I mean by ‘Normal’?”
The class nodded its collective head; they looked strangely subdued.
“Normal is a kind of behaviour that we expect other people to have, things that we expect them to do, things we expect them to say. It is very important that we all are sensitive to these expectations from other people. We must realize that when we behave in ways that run against the rules of what is Normal that it can make other people feel uncomfortable. Education for Living is all about teaching you to find out what is Normal for the place you are in and the kind of people you are with. Once you know what those things are you can make sure your own behaviour matches what is Normal for yourself in that situation and with those particular people. Children get bullied because they have not yet learned this lesson; they don’t know what Normal is and so can’t become Normal themselves. This upsets a lot of people, like the children who do the bullying. You might think that bullies are just nasty people who like hurting other people, but they’re not; they are just average boys and girls who are faced with another boy or girl who is not Normal. They just don't know how to handle that. If you can’t learn how to become Normal then you will carry on being bullied I’m afraid. There are some grown-ups who are bullied too, you know; they’re bullied by other grown-ups. Sometimes they’re bullied at work, sometimes in their home and sometimes just by people in the street. The reason they’re bullied is because they didn’t learn this lesson at school, they never learnt how to be Normal... Let me ask you: If you were with a group of Year 11 children, what TV programme do you think they’d be most likely to watch?”
Four or five children put up their hands.
She pointed at one of them. “Yes?”
“Good! And another?” She pointed at another hand.
“Yes, and another?”
“Yes! In fact Hustle is one of the best TV programmes because all the characters in it are good examples of people who are keen to be Normal. They’re good role-models for you to follow... Now suppose you went up to those Year 11 children and said: ‘I like Teletubbies!’ or ‘I like Gardeners Question Time!’ or ‘I listen to The Archers on the radio!’ What would those Year 11 children think? Would they want to talk to you about it?”
The class shook their heads.
“Of course not. This is why if you want them to be friends with you then you have to watch the same TV programmes they watch.”
She strutted up and down the space in front of her desk for a few moments with her hands behind her back. “Now, we’re going to do some more role-playing...”
Glyn sat silently in the minibus on the journey home. When he arrived back at his own school the bell had just gone for dinner. In the hall, at the front of the queue in their usual spot, the Sneighland gang were chatting and laughing confidently, gazing hungrily along the line of smaller pupils, planning their next attack.
They took a break for coffee. Nicholson boiled the kettle on an old-fashion fossil-gas stove in the galley and the deliciously sharp aroma filled the cabin. Nicholson read his expression and smiled at him. “This will be your third cup, Glyn.”
“It’s lush as hell, Jerry! Where’d you get it from?”
“I get it delivered; it’s from one of the top Colombian coops. Fifty-eight magows a packet!”
Southsea whistled. “Worth it, I’d say!”
“Not half!” Nicholson came back to the den carrying two steaming mugs, placed them on the table and picked up his laptop. “OK, so where were we? Did the Sneighlands attack you again after that?”
Glyn gazed down at his shoes. “Several times.”
“And did you really believe that it was your fault?”
“Yes, for a while; in fact I believed it until it was for too late to do anything about it... Until after I’d quit school.”
“We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves there, Glyn. We still haven’t broached the subject of ‘him’.”
“Oh yeah, ‘him’. Where can I possibly start there?”
“Is there some significant moment during the time he was involved with your family that you consider revelatory of what came later? For instance, you once spoke of a strange incident at Green Templeton College.”
“Oh yes, ironic that that place is just up the road; never realized I’d end up living here. That was the day of his wedding.”
“Take me back to the start; what happened?”
“Sit up straight! You’ll crease your jacket!” Arthur Southsea snapped from the driving seat.
“But, Dad, I’m uncomfortable!” moaned Glyn.
“I valeted the car for an hour last night just to keep these suits clean!” said Glyn’s father. “I’m not having you creasing up yours by slouching!... And put your tie on!”
“It hurts my neck. And we’re not there yet; nobody can see me.”
Marianne Southsea, Glyn’s mother, turned round in the front passenger seat to look at him. “Do as your dad says, Glyn. You’re going to have to wear it all day so you might as well get used to it while we're in the car.”
Glyn raised his chin and gingerly fastened the top button on his shirt. He then pulled the tie until it closed like a noose around his neck. Since his voice had started breaking a month earlier his throat had been sore almost continuously and the collar aggravated the irritation. “Creighton’s mum and dad aren’t going to make him wear a tie; he told me.” Glyn muttered.
“We’re not Creighton’s mum and dad.” said Marianne. “We’re yours.”
“It’s not fair!” he choked.
“Well, life isn’t fair!” retorted his father without hesitation.
They’d been driving for an hour now after leaving home at eight in the morning. They’d formed an unofficial convoy of cars consisting of their cluster of friends from Belswill and a few were still in sight as they cruised along the motorway. After rising at dawn to bathe and dress with precision they’d bundled into their Lexus saloon for the journey. Glyn’s mother wanted to travel in the larger and more comfortable Volvo estate, but her husband had vetoed this: “The Lexus looks better.” he said. They headed south to the M25 and then joined the M40 for the jaunt to Oxford, the hometown of the bride’s family. Glyn’s sister Daisy was sitting to his left and his older brother Mark was leaning against the right-hand window of the back seat, his usual taciturn and sullen self. Glyn was in the middle with the driveshaft hump between his ankles and nowhere to rest his arms.
The wedding was to take place was a small country church in a tiny little village just outside Oxford that looked as old as the tall, green hills that surrounded it. The place was done up with white ribbon and roses and the guests all crowded in chattering and laughing as the organ played ecclesiastical Muzak in the background. Glyn and his siblings were hemmed in by mohair-covered backs and low-cut busts; the air stank of perfume, silk, aftershave and flowers. An usher in a morning coat showed them to their seats on the ancient, varnished wooden pews. Just before they all sat down their father stopped and turned to them leaning forward with his hands on his knees, his characteristic posture of seriousness. He glanced around him to check nobody else could hear and then whispered: “Listen, you three. Today is a very important day, not just for Simon and Susannah, but for us. This is a day when we have to behave well and be courteous to our fellow guests and Simon and Susannah’s family, and you will all show respect and cooperate fully with proceedings at all times; is that clear?”
Glyn and Daisy nodded and Mark shrugged.
Their father glared at Mark, acknowledging his projected unwillingness. His bald pate flushed slightly. “If any of you act out of turn or so much as look at anybody rudely today then I’ll make you very, very sorry! Do you understand!?”
Another nod and shrug. “Don’t worry, Dad.” sneered Mark. “We won’t make you look a fool in front of all your posh frrrriends!” He rolled the “r” of the word like a Scotsman or Italian.
Southsea’s eyes bugged at his older son and he bared his teeth: “And one disobliging remark like that from you, my boy, and you can forget Norway!... Understood!?”
Daisy tittered. This was not the first time that their father had used Mark’s upcoming school holiday as a bargaining chip. Mark returned his father’s malevolent glare.
“I said is that understood!?” hissed Southsea in a voiceless shout.
“Yes!” spat Mark tonelessly.
Everybody was now sat down. The children all looked unfamiliar in their Sunday bests; they rotated their heads to catch glimpses of each other. Creighton, a boy in the school year below him, turned around from several rows ahead and waved to Glyn mouthing some words that Glyn couldn’t grasp. He pulled up short as his mother gave him a stern look.
The vicar walked round to the front and nodded at the organist. Arthur Southsea straightened his back and smoothed his thick moustache. The strains of Here Comes the Bride began and Glyn watched as Simon Danbury stood up. Glyn couldn’t see his face and had never seen him wearing a suit before, but even if he hadn’t known that he was the groom Glyn would have recognized him. Even on this day his huge mop of brown hair was as unkempt and protruding as always. Glyn felt the usual twinge of unease as he always did in Danbury’s presence. Susannah marched solemnly down the aisle arm-in-arm with her father and flanked by a group of waif-like bridesmaids whom Glyn had never seen before. Susannah’s dress was peach in colour and the bodice was crepe, obviously designed to hide, and failing badly at it, her now fairly advanced pregnancy. She was a bookish-looking woman with thick glasses and neatly-curled hair, styled with ringlets and bangs; a bit virginal, like a librarian. She stood at the altar next to Danbury and beamed up at him adoringly. He turned his head and smiled back at her, allowing Glyn to see his face. His smile was the same one he always used, no different because of this occasion.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” began the Vicar.
“AMEN.” everybody said in unison.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witnesses the joining together in Holy Matrimony of Simon and Susannah...”
The service lasted for about an hour. Glyn found he could follow very little of it and felt himself slip into an ultradian state of consciousness, like he sometimes did at school, as boredom and his early rise that morning caught up with him. His mother had to nudge him several times to stay awake, and to remind him to join in during the hymn singing. The congregation became deeply fervent as the wows and rings were exchanged; a woman in the front row began weeping as quietly as she could, her sniffs echoing off the mediaeval rafters above. The organ then struck up the Wedding March and the couple paraded out of the church; Glyn averted his eyes as they passed in case Danbury looked at him.
The mood of the day then changed from one of reverence to one of celebration. People trooped out of the church to their cars chuckling, chatting and grinning. They all drove into the city of Oxford to an ornate building made of grayish-brown stone. As they entered the building, men dressed up in bow ties invited them to a grand hall which had been laid out for a banquet with spotless, white tablecloths and rows of immaculately-matched crockery and cutlery. The same men then served them with dinner. The food was delectable, but came in very small portions; this included the slice of the wedding cake Glyn was given which was so thin that he could see his hand through it. After dinner ended the guests were all excused from the table and his mood lightened because as the adults withdrew to a lounge to enjoy alcoholic drinks the children were free to play in the building's grand, carpeted corridors and chambers. Everything was very clean and neat with stainless sofas and armchairs that provided wonderful locations for games of Hide-and-Seek, Forty-Forty, Off-Ground Tig and even football, using a rolled up mache of napkins wetted with the dregs of a wine glass, as a ball. The best thing about the reception venue was the tower. Glyn had seen it from the outside when they arrived in the carpark. The centerpiece of the building was a squat, solid tower with a polygonal plan that resembled an observatory. He’d thought at the time how much he’d like to get inside it and climb to the top; now to the delight of the children, they realized that the tower was openly linked to the building’s grand hallway and that there were no doors to keep them from exploring it. The top of the tower was accessed from the ground floor by a wide spiral staircase that wound around the walls with a gaping well in the middle; this landed onto a gallery that ran around the inside of the roof and was lit by large, square windows that offered a stunning view of the famous skyline of Oxford. A tournament of “Tigget” quickly broke out. This is a game in which two to four participants stand at opposite sides of a large circular court, its dimensions defined for example by a playground roundabout, and then run around the court and try to catch the player in front of them, while simultaneously avoiding capture themselves from the player behind them. The object of the game is to catch all the other players, while completely escaping capture themselves, and the one remaining in the designated field-of-play is declared the winner. Under some variations of the rules sudden switches of direction are permitted. The novelty of the location enhanced the enjoyment of the game, with the gallery serving as the field-of-play, and the Tigget match was raucous and thrilling. It only paused when Mark appeared at the top of the stairs. Mark was several years older than Glyn and his friends and so straddled that strange demi-monde between childhood and “Grown-Up Land”. He was too old to play Tigget, and was allowed a few sips of alcoholic drink with the adults, but not yet entitled to his own glass. “What do you want, Mark?” demanded Glyn with a scowl when he saw his brother’s crafty smile and noticed that he was carrying a bundle in his arms that seemed to be made of a screwed-up section of tablecloth.
“That’s not very nice, Glynny.” He replied. “I just wanted to come and say hello.”
“’Hello’!” said Justin sarcastically. “You’ve said it so you can go now.”
“Yeah!” chimed in Creighton. “Go back to your crumbly mates and kiss Simon’s arse, Mark!”
Mark chuckled with mock-affront. “Aw, Creighton, that’s mean; after I brought you all a present and everything.” He unwrapped his makeshift parcel and revealed that it was secreting a bottle of white wine.
The hostility of the younger boys transformed instantly to affability and elation. “Hey, wicked!”
“Yeah! Nice one, Mark!”
“I want some!”
Mark left them to it and headed back down the stairs laughing. Glyn and his friends gathered round the bottle in excitement and awe. “How do we open it?” asked Alec.
“We need a corkscrew.” said Michael.
“Anybody got a penknife?”
“I have!” piped up Creighton and pulled the device out of his pocket. He fiddled with the array of blades for a while until he’d deployed the corkscrew and sat down by the bottle, the others avidly following his progress. It took about ten minutes with lots of false starts, but the cork was eventually extracted from the neck of the bottle, mostly in ground-up pieces. The boys all roared with triumph as Creighton lifted the bottle to his lips and quaffed deeply. “Hey! That’s enough, Creighton! Leave some for the rest of us!” The bottle was passed round from hand to hand, each boy drinking as much as you could before the protests of those in the queue ahead cut short his swig. Glyn was last in the line and gulped what was left, raising the bottle above his open mouth to catch the last of the drips.
The empty bottle was partly concealed behind a radiator and the Tigget game continued. However after a few minutes it began to break down. Glyn began to feel unsteady on his feet and noticed that sounds around him were muted and warped. His vision began to blur and he became dizzy; but at the same time he felt strangely jovial and laughed out loud at his most staid and mundane thoughts and words. Looking around him, he realized that all his companions were similarly afflicted. He recognized the symptoms of drunkenness. This was not the first time in his life he’d become drunk, in fact it was the third. The other two occasions had been during his parents’ house-parties when he’d covertly mine-swept the table of all its half-finished glasses when the adult revelers had gone for a walk in the garden. The boys gave up the Tigget game and all collapsed in a heap telling feeble jokes and screeching with helpless mirth at every one of them. Justin became nauseous and vomited behind the radiator near the bottle. After a while Glyn stood up and went for a walk around the gallery, clutching the gallery’s parapet hard to steady himself. It was then that he noticed that something was wrong. He stopped to take a look out of one of the windows and saw that the landscape outside has frozen solid, as still as a photograph. There was a building site next door to the venue and it had been a hive of activity with cranes swinging, cement pouring and bricks being laid; now the cranes were still and the cement looked set in mid-flow. The hard-hatted men working the site were all as still as waxworks. One was petrified in mid-stride while walking along, another held a brick in one hand a mortar-trowel in the other. Glyn rushed to another window and saw that on the neighbouring street exactly the same had happened; the people on the pavements behaved exactly as the builders on the site and cars and busses were immobile. Most peculiar of all, a cloud of black exhaust hung in the air behind a van, like a fly trapped in amber.
“Hey!” Glyn yelled. “Get up, guys! Something’s wrong!”
“What?” moaned Justin.
“Everything’s fine. This is a great place.” said Alec, slurring his words.
“No!” replied Glyn. “Look out of the window.”
One by one the boys all clambered to their feet and moved to a window. They all gasped. “What’s going on!? Why is everything still!?” Justin started crying.
Glyn turned back to face the interior of the tower and saw that something else wasn’t right. The sounds from inside the wedding reception venue had gone too. Throughout the party their own activities had been accompanied by the distant background murmur of the adults’ conversation in the lounge at the base of the tower; this was now silent. Glyn also noticed that a lot of the colour had faded from their surroundings. The bright green wallpaper of the building had now turned a gloomy forest colour and the signal red trimming on the windowsills was now a kind of maroon. At the same time another strange sound emerged from the silence, a continuous hooting whining sound that seemed to come from all around them. Glyn checked his panic by reminding himself that he’d just drunk a large quantity of wine and was probably just experiencing an abnormal type of drunkenness; adults may suffer from this all the time when they drank alcohol and just think nothing of it, waiting for it to pass. “Don’t worry!” he voiced his reassuring thoughts to his friends. “We’ll be alright! This isn’t real. It’s just the wine we drank.”
“Then how come we can all see the same things?” demanded Justin. “If this was all in our heads...”
“What’s up with Creighton?” asked another boy, and all eyes turned.
Creighton had not joined in with the exclamations and queries of the others. He was standing bolt upright staring into space as if he were in a trance. His eyes were wide and unblinking and his mouth hung open.
“Creighton, are you OK?” asked Glyn.
Then Creighton started walking. He slowly took one step at a time in the direction of the spiral stairway that led down to the ground floor.
“Creighton, where are you going?... Creighton!”
When Creighton reached the top of the staircase he didn’t descend; instead he leaned over the banister and swung one of his legs over it so he was straddling the rail. Terror stabbed into Glyn’s heart and everybody trembled and moaned, but the boys were all frozen to the spot and unable to move through fear.
“GET OFF THERE!” bellowed a new voice, a gruff adult voice. They all swung round to see Arthur Southsea scaling up the stairs towards them. Suddenly, as if a switch had been pressed, everything flipped back to normal. The normal colours and sounds returned and the strange hooting noise stopped as if it were on a radio that had just been unplugged. Creighton obviously came out of his trance at the very same moment because his eyes bulged and he screamed with shock as he realized where he was: about to fall off a stair-rail a good hundred feet above the hard marble floor and baize-thin carpet at the base of the tower. He hurled himself in the opposite direction, rolling onto the floor of the gallery just as Southsea reached them. “What the hell is going on!?” Southsea yelled, but everybody had shrunk back and they were all weeping profusely. Creighton hugged himself as he lay on the floor, groaning and trembling.
Southsea’s gaze rotated like a lighthouse, absorbing everything; it came to rest on the radiator where there stood the empty bottle of wine and the puddle of Justin’s vomit. His cheeks flushed and his face creased into a bitter frown. Glyn looked out of the window; the pedestrians and traffic was moving normally, as were the men and machines on the building site. All the normal sights and sounds of the world had returned. Glyn then glanced back at the stairway and saw that more adults were ascending the staircase towards them to see what was going on. Leading them was a man with his wide eyes gleaming in the glow from the windows. It was the groom, Simon Danbury.
It was getting dark and starting to rain as they drove back home to Belswill. For a long time nobody spoke and Glyn just watched the raindrops course down the car windows, illuminated by the glow of approaching headlights. Then his father cleared his throat and caught his eyes in the rearview mirror. “Glyn, where did you lot get that bottle of wine?”
Mark gave him an almost imperceptible nudge with his foot.
“I don’t know.” replied Glyn quietly.
“I’m going to bloody well find out!” snapped Southsea. “Simon and Susannah’s big day almost ended in disaster! Imagine if Creighton had fallen; it would have ruined everything for them! I mean, that’s a fine story to tell the grandchildren isn’t it!?”
“It might have dampened the spirits of Creighton’s mum and dad slightly too.” said Mark with a sardonic grimace.
Southsea snorted and shook his head.
“Dad...” Glyn had deliberated over whether he should tell them anything on this subject: “Something weird happened up there. We heard this strange noise, everything we could see changed and everything outside froze solid. We all saw it.”
“Rubbish!” scoffed his father. “Nothing weird happened at all! You just got pissed up! There’s nothing weird about that!... I hope to God you have the mother of all hangovers in the morning, boy; that’ll teach you a lesson!”
Glyn’s mother sighed and shook her head. “Glyn, I was totally mortified by what you did. How could you!? Next time we go to a wedding we’ll have to leave you with a babysitter... God alone knows what Simon Danbury thinks of us now!”
Mark tittered too quietly for their parents to hear above the noise of the car. He winked at Glyn and grinned.
It was almost a cliché in Glyn’s household: “What about Simon Danbury?” They almost always referred to him by both his names for some reason, even though he was the only person called Simon that they knew. Glyn couldn’t remember when Simon Danbury had first come into their lives. He was just there one day. After that he was there almost continuously. He had some connection with Glyn’s father’s work and held some position in his office at the Forestry Commission. He was also a qualified Mathematics teacher, which had terrible consequences for Glyn. He treated Glyn’s home as his own. Glyn’s parents began leaving the front door unlocked and Simon Danbury used to walk in through the front door without knocking. He had a bizarre manner. He wouldn’t say anything when he walked in and tread very quietly with slow footfalls, almost as if he were tiptoeing. Then he would enter the lounge and say: “Ah!” smiling and raising his eyebrows. Arthur and Marianne Southsea would then stop whatever they were doing, smile extremely broadly back at him and say: “Hello, Simon.” Glyn always studied his parents carefully when they were with Simon Danbury; whenever he was around their manner always changed considerably. All his father’s grouchiness and melancholy would evaporate and so too would his mother’s phlegmatic timidity and they would become completely different people. Their faces would take on a rhapsodic smile and they would look at Simon Danbury with starry eyes, almost childlike. Glyn’s parents were two very different people, opposites in many ways, but when Simon Danbury was around they behaved exactly the same. And Simon Danbury was in their home a lot, in fact Mark used to joke that their parents should charge him rent. He would visit at least once every evening, not just drop in briefly, but stay for several hours, often sharing their dinner. At weekends he’d be there all day Saturday and Sunday. This was at a time when the Southseas had just moved into Belswill and Arthur and Marianne were constantly talking about the need to “fit in” and used other phrases like “circle of friends”, “neighbourhood community”, “getting in with the crowd” “Residents Association” and “middle classes”. Glyn didn’t know what these terms meant, but he got the gist of it: His parents were doing what the new boys and girls did at his school: making a place for themselves in society. For schoolchildren it meant finding the right kind of kid to sit next to in which class; for adults like his mother and father it meant meeting the people who would introduce them to the Bridge circles, joining the Tennis club, finding out how to lie about the price of their house, how to conceal the fact that they sent their children to the local state school, and that they didn’t have private healthcare. Glyn remembered well the night his father came home carrying his embroidered gilt apron, proof that he’d been accepted into the Belswill Mason’s lodge. He hadn’t looked that happy in years; genuinely happy, not the false happiness he showed when he was around Simon Danbury.
Simon Danbury was nothing special to look at. He didn’t dress half as well as most of the Southseas’ other associates. He always wore faded bush-green corduroy trousers and thick woolen sweaters of a similar colour. His shoes were always scuffed and worn and the tread on the soles filed down by use, as Glyn could see when Simon Danbury sat in his characteristic posture on the settee: laid back with one of his legs crossed over the knee of the other. He was clean-shaven and didn’t wear spectacles, but his second most striking feature was his hair. It was light brown, and thick and heavy, and it stood out from his head evenly in all directions. He probably never brushed it as it was extremely chaotic and scruffy, like a bird's nest. However Simon Danbury’s most striking feature of all, by a long shot, was his eyes. For his whole life, whenever Glyn recalled Simon Danbury, it was always his eyes that shot to the front of his mind. His eyes were wide and staring, usually the whites were visible all the way around his electric blue irises. They were active and intelligent eyes, perceptive eyes, eyes which drank in information. However at the same time they were strangely lifeless. They were eyes like a corpse’s; they looked as if they’d been painted onto his face. When he smiled, which he did a lot of the time, he looked like a robot smiling. He was extremely calm and emotionless and never reacted to anything that other people did, like weepy movies, news stories about disasters; he never cried at funerals. However he did laugh, and his laugh was very loud and intrusive. What would happen if, for instance, somebody told a joke which made everybody chuckle mildly in their own way, Simon Danbury would throw back his head, face the ceiling, open his mouth wide and cackle: “Hahahahahahaha!” so stridently that he could be heard halfway down the road. His laugh always sounded exactly the same: “Hahahahahahaha!”, like a cross between a braying donkey and a chattering monkey. And it always lasted almost exactly the same amount of time: 4.5 to 4.9 seconds; Mark timed it with a stopwatch. As soon as the laugh ended his head would snap back into its upright position like a Roman catapult and his expression would return to normal. While other people would be dabbing their eyes and giving out little hilarity aftershocks, Simon Danbury would look as if he hadn’t even laughed at all. Yet this didn’t seem to worry anybody; on the contrary Simon Danbury was extremely popular; he had what the Southseas called a “very wide circle of friends” and at house-parties he was always the centre of attention. What’s more other people at the parties where he went acted in the same perplexing way that the Southseas did: they wore that same ridiculous and sycophantic smile, had the same glint of devotion in their eyes. Glyn watched in amazement as everybody leaned towards him at the dinner table like flowers facing the sun. Mark put it very well when he said: “Simon Danbury can make people act like dogs.” Mark was a good artist and he drew caricatures of Simon Danbury walking along the street with a pack of dogs following him, their tails wagging and their tongues hanging out; he gave the dogs human faces that resembled his parents and their acquaintances. Glyn chuckled at this, but deep down there was something frightening and sinister about this observation. People did indeed behave in a manner towards Simon Danbury that was very canine: passionately loyal, adoring and, above all, obedient.
Glyn hated Simon Danbury. He hated him more than anybody else in the world, more than the Sneighlands, more than Mr. Spoxton. But the odd thing was: he didn’t know why... or at least not at first. He didn’t even get upset the night of one party when he saw Simon Danbury kissing his mother in the garden and his father kissing Simon Danbury’s girlfriend just a couple of dozen yards away. They were very drunk at the time after all, or rather the Southseas were. Arthur and Marianne often stayed up late with Simon Danbury at weekends, sometimes until long after midnight. Occasionally other friends would join them, like Lizzie, one of Simon Danbury’s early girlfriends. They used to put away several bottles of wine during these benders, and although Simon Danbury used to drink as much as they all did, he never seemed to get inebriated. Glyn’s grandmother had been staying that night and had created a scene when she saw what was going on, but Glyn, Mark and Daisy had just shrugged, categorizing the incident as one of the many insoluble mysteries of the adult world. No, Glyn hated Simon Danbury besides that, not because of it.
“Glyn, your mother and I have been discussing your latest school report.” Arthur Southsea had said one evening during dinner. Glyn knew trouble was brewing; he’d had a long lecture following the last parents' evening and had never imagined that that would be the end of it. His father thrust a piece of paper in Glyn's face covered in a long list of meaningless capital letters and numbers. “What do you have to say about this!?” he demanded. Glyn shrugged and his parents exchanged glances, misinterpreting his incomprehension for indifference. “It’s not good enough!” Arthur exclaimed. “At this rate you’ll fail your SAT’s, fail your GCSE’s and be unable to continue your education. Good God, you’d never get into university! Catherine Sims’ sons have both got into Cambridge! Do you realize that if you let us down we’ll be the first family on this street to not have children who went to university! Think what that’ll do to our reputation!”
“Your father’s right, Glyn.” chimed in Marianne. “How would I be able to hold my head up at the Women’s Institute meetings if you let us down?”
“Maths seems to be your weakest subject.” said Arthur. “For that reason we’ve decided that you are to have extra after-school tuition.”
“With who?” he asked, but he already knew the answer.
“’Whom’ not ‘who’, and it’s with Simon Danbury.”
The thought of spending time alone with Simon Danbury terrified Glyn. To sit in the study, just Simon Danbury and himself, while his family were in other rooms! It gave Glyn nightmares. But then something happened that he hadn’t expected: he found that he couldn’t remember the private Maths lessons he had with Simon Danbury. They were a black hole in his mind. He’d recall Simon Danbury turning up in his usual way, then leaving at the end of the evening after his regular socializing with the Southsea elders. Then his parents asked Glyn how the lesson went. Glyn, thinking quickly, replied: “Oh... very well. I learned a lot.” He decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and just enjoyed the fact that the thoughts he worried about weren’t there in his mind. It seemed foolish for him to be worrying about not being worried. He did question this course of action after the lessons had been going on for a couple of months because he noticed that he was developing bruises on his body where he hadn’t knocked himself. More worryingly he began passing blood with his stool, and it often hurt a lot too; he began suffering from severe periodic abdominal pain. But his intuition told him to keep quiet. During this period he also had outlandish and horrifying nightmares about monsters growing inside his body and vampires drinking his blood, but he let it pass. As his mother always told him, they were just dreams, not real; and he was now too old to be frightened by them.
However a day came to pass when he almost did ask his mother about his symptoms when one of these regular lacunae lasted all day. It was a day when his parents had both taken Daisy to a special gymkhana and they had asked Simon Danbury to babysit Glyn and Mark. He had turned up on time and let himself in because, of course, he had his own key. After that Glyn remembered nothing until his parents returned at 4PM. It was as if one moment it had been morning and the next afternoon. What was stranger was that Mark commented that he too could remember nothing of that day. That night Glyn had one of the worst nightmares of his life. It was daytime and he was alone in the house with Mark and Simon Danbury. He’d been in his bedroom and heard a voice crying and realized that it was Mark, which was so confusing and upsetting because Mark was three years older than Glyn and hadn’t cried in front of him since Glyn was a very small child. The voice came from downstairs. Glyn quietly descended the stairs and identified the voice as coming from the lounge. He opened the door and saw Mark and Simon Danbury both standing in the middle of the room, Mark was naked and Simon Danbury was ferociously beating Mark's back and bottom with a belt. But in the midst of this brutality his face was as placid and deadpan as always. Glyn woke up at that point and screamed aloud in horror. He almost got up and went to his parents’ room, asking if he could sleep in their bed with them, something he hadn’t done for years. It had been so vivid and lucid that Glyn could hardly believe the self-reassurances he gave himself, repeating his mothers’, that it was only a dream and not real.
However there was one incident which Glyn did remember very painfully because it revealed the true nature of the relationship Simon Danbury had with his mother and father. One evening it was the Southseas’ turn to host the Bridge circle and a dozen people turned up and settled into the conservatory. Simon Danbury joined them and, as always, was the star of the show. He sat at the head of the table and dealt the cards. Glyn, Mark and Daisy stayed in the lounge and watched TV. The evening wore on for an hour or two then Glyn and Daisy had an argument over what to watch next. After a handful of angry exchanges the door burst open and Arthur charged into the room. “Will you lot be bloody well quiet!?” he shouted. “Your mother and Simon Danbury have a partnership that’s about to break the circle’s scoring record! They’re on their last trick! So if you two don’t pipe down and let them concentrate I’ll change the channel myself to Sky News and keep the remote control... OK!?”
Glyn was in a bad mood after a rotten day at school and his father’s antipathy wounded his already thinned skin. A few minutes after Arthur returned to the conservatory Glyn followed him. He peeped round the door, taking in the adults all perched on their chairs, facing Simon Danbury at the head of the table. He entered the room and said loudly with a snigger. “Mum, I hear you and Simon are partners. I thought you had more sense than that.”
There was a moment’s pause. Everybody stopped talking and turned to look at him. Then Simon Danbury leapt out of his chair, crossed the room in a single step, raised his hand and landed a stunning forehand blow across Glyn’s face. Then he seized Glyn’s collar, dragged him out of the conservatory and threw him onto the floor. Glyn caught a glimpse of the room as Simon Danbury strode back inside and slammed the door shut. As soon as Glyn had recovered his wits he stood up. Stars filled his vision and his head reeled. “What have I done!?” he yelled, but nobody in the room answered. The skin of his face still stung from the impact of Simon Danbury’s palm and when he touched his nose he saw blood on his fingers. He stumbled silently up to his room and lay quivering on his bed in the darkness, teetering on the border of tears. He had no idea how long he lay there. He lifted his head as he heard cheerful voices in the hallway, including Simon Danbury’s trademark cackle. The evening had ended and the guests were going home. The front door shut and Glyn heard footsteps on the stairs. His mother was coming up to his room. She knocked on the door: “Glyn, can I come in?”
Marianne made an effort to open and close the door as quietly as possible as she came into the room. She switched on the light and then adjusted the dimmer so as not to dazzle him. She sat on the bed and took Glyn’s hand. “Glyn, I want you to know that Simon Danbury was very sorry for what happened downstairs earlier. He was very, very sorry.”
“Mum, can I stop having Maths lessons with Simon Danbury?”
She signed tremulously. “No... I’m sorry, Glyn, but you need them.”
What haunted Glyn for years and years after that evening, what he recalled most about that traumatic moment, was not the pain of the attack, nor the humiliation of being beaten like that publically in front of his parents’ friends; it was the looks on everybody’s faces. Firstly Simon Danbury’s: Glyn had already noticed how he never seemed moved or ruffled emotionally by anything; his only outward expression of feeling was his unearthly laugh, and this is as it was that moment. As Simon Danbury attacked and beat Glyn, his face was as calm and nonchalant as always, displaying no anger or offence. The other thing that disturbed Glyn was the faces of the other adults who witnessed him carry out his attack, even his mother and father: They were equally impassive, but more than just impassive; they were sheepish, slavish and frustrated; as if helpless, trapped in the unbreakable chains of some higher power. The higher power was Simon Danbury's will. Mixed with that were the minute twinges of embarrassment and enjoyment that is worn by young children in school while a teacher is punishing one of their peers.
Simon Danbury turned up the next day and acted like nothing had happened. If he were "very, very sorry" for what he’d done then he was hiding it well, and he had clearly only revealed his shame privately to Arthur and Marianne. Glyn’s tuition with him continued for the rest of the year.
However after the wedding Simon Danbury spent somewhat less time at their home, for which Glyn was relieved, even though he was still by normal standards a regular visitor. He and Susannah bought a house just two streets away and Glyn couldn’t help wondering if maybe this was so that he wouldn’t be too far from his precious friends, the Southsea family.
Next: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2012/03/obscurati-chronicles-part-13.html )