Sunday, 15 February 2015

Forsaken - Chapter 1


Crying when you’re not upset takes planning.
   You can’t expect to just turn up at a funeral and switch on the tears. You need a memory to tap into. On the way to the Wakefield Church, I thought about my dog that had been hit by a bus when I was six. He was an untidy Labrador called Adam. He slept on the end of my bed and left strands of saliva and charcoal coloured hairs on the linen sheets. One morning, he’d been hit by the number 17 bus, after scrabbling under the trellis in pursuit of a cat, before trying unsuccessfully to chase it across Howston Street. It was the last time I could remember crying, so I thought about Adam with his sad eyes, lying dead beside the kerb, and it was enough to bring the first tears.
   When I stepped out of the car into the morning sunlight, my cheeks were already wet. I stayed close to my mother, following her along the crooked path to the church entrance, where other mourners gathered in awkward silence. I avoided eye contact, kept my head bowed, cried softly, and waited until people began to make their way into the church, and we shuffled into the gloomy interior.
   While the priest droned in his finest funereal tone and gesticulated skywards, I stood to the rear of the church, holding my mum’s arm, wiping salted tears on the back of my hand. She comforted me by stroking my hair and rubbing my neck. It was a convincing scene, and I knew that my cover was safe – people would see the distraught fifteen year old mourning the loss of a friend and never suspect a vengeful boy who had murdered him in cold blood.
   I lowered my head in feigned mourning, watching ants file past my feet in a ragged line. Fierce sunlight filtered blue and green through stained glass windows, warming my arms, lighting slow moving streams of dust. Despite the heat outside, the stone floors and pillars inside the church were cool to the touch. Two great fans whirred and hummed as they rotated slowly, blowing warm air over the bowed heads of the congregation. The priest was talking about the next life and how Anthony was happier now. I kept wondering if he would spend eternity with a caved in skull – just walking around in Heaven with blood on his face and matted hair and a triangular looking head. For some reason, the Heaven in my imagination was filled with ivory white clouds, and even when I tried to replace them with a seemingly more realistic rainforest, intersected by crystal streams and lit by patches of pure sunlight, the clouds kept returning, so I gave up trying to stop them, and watched a bloodied Anthony stroll around on a cloud beneath a perfect sky.
   The priest invited Anthony’s uncle to the lectern, who stood hunched, red-eyed and gaunt, and eulogised about the lovely boy Anthony had been: helpful, kind, inquisitive and intelligent. It was all drivel, as Anthony had been a spiteful thing, full of bad temper and cruel jokes. He was the nastiest fifteen year old in school and plenty of people would take years to rebuild their self-esteem after he had flattened it – honed in on their weakest points, darkest fears and then prodded and probed with endless taunts and jibes. One girl, I forget her name, had drunk a pineapple juice laced with paracetamol after six months of him mocking her weight. Her mother had found her vomiting blood and she had survived, if a bit damaged.
   I stopped crying for a while as my eyes were sore. A projector screen clicked and hummed as it unrolled from its mounting; first blue, then unfocused, then finally a photograph of Anthony blowing candles out on his eighth birthday cake. This was followed by pictures of him looking smug or unpleasant in various locations around his home: eating heavily buttered toast at the breakfast table, slumped on the sofa, gripping his sister in a headlock. The pictures were accompanied by Elgar, which drowned the sobs of the congregation, but seemed oddly discordant in the context.
   As the slideshow finished, my mother gave me a comforting hug, and whispered words of encouragement, telling me how brave and strong I was, so I cried a little more, to keep my cover secure. She was a good Christian woman and attended church every Sunday, sometimes accompanied by me when I could find no reasonable excuse, and sometimes by my father when he wasn’t abroad, like he was that day. She was petite and pretty, tanned from gardening in the May sun. She wore black, as we all did (I was dressed in my only suit, a shade too big, the trousers hanging low at my waist). She was a kind mother, and I remember her being softly spoken and shy in public. When I was younger, she made up stories filled with anthropomorphic animals, dramatic weather and improbably cheerful endings. I remember one about a hedgehog who was lost in the snow, was rescued by a squirrel and spent Christmas eating acorns by the fire. At the time I was worried that hedgehogs didn’t like acorns, but I never mentioned it.
   After the slideshow the priest talked about death some more and how it was just another part of life and how the people we had known were still looking down on us and how they never really moved on but watched and waited for us to join them. I looked up and wondered if Anthony was looking down how he would be feeling. Pretty angry, I thought, having his life cut short by a collapsed stone wall. Except, I guessed, that in the afterlife he might get told the truth, or maybe watch it back in some Heavenly replay, and see that the wall had not fallen by itself - I had pushed it on him. It was not exactly a premeditated attack. I fully intended to kill Anthony at some point, but seeing him lying there, his evil frame snoozing in the shade, taking a break from tormenting the other kids, I had made a pretty quick decision. I saw the loose stones in the upper layer, manoeuvred myself into position then pushed with all my strength, sending a hefty stone directly onto his head. As he lay there gasping and twitching, I lifted the stone as high as I could then dropped it onto his head for a second time, just to make sure the damage was terminal.
   He would be angry, that was for sure.
   Anthony’s mother screamed and sobbed and seemed close to hysteria as the ceremony finished and the pall bearers lifted the coffin onto their shoulders. The slow walk out seemed the most emotional bit so I cried some more and hugged my mother just so everyone could be sure I was upset, even though I was thinking more about an iced drink from the cafĂ© opposite the church.
Outside, the procession made its slow way to the graveyard, but we hung back with some of the other schoolchildren and their parents, leaving the final moments to the close family. For a boy who had caused so much hatred there was a good turnout from our school, although most had been dragged along by their parents, and were probably grateful their tormentor was dead. We stood silent by the flint walls of the church, bathed in warm sunlight, surrounded by the smell of hyacinth and roses, listening to the wailing mother and the hum of distant traffic.
   If Anthony had been there, other than as a corpse, he would have been causing trouble; pushing someone, sneering, making whispered comments, making lewd gestures at the girls until they cried and ran away. School would be a better place without him. In a way, my actions had made me a hero, although no-one would ever know, and I might not exactly fit the definition. There was a fine line between a hero and a villain, and I had given a lot of thought to where I stood on that front. In Greek mythology, heroes can be arrogant and selfish, craving power and adulation. They are nothing like the self-sacrificing heroes of the modern age. I had sacrificed my conscience to take Anthony’s life, and the fear of capture had weighed heavily over the previous week.
   Anthony had tried to bully me just as he had the other students. We were left alone in the school changing rooms after sport. We had played football in the dry heat and our clothes and bodies were layered in fine dust. I was one of the last to finish changing, and I had been pulling my jacket on when I realised too late he was behind me with a can of heat spray, catching me in the eyes as I spun around then kicking me in the ribs as I hunched on the floor in agony. I tensed, waiting for the next blow, which took several seconds, as Anthony was obviously enjoying watching me suffer. When it finally arrived, the tip of his shoe slammed into my sternum, leaving me briefly unable to breathe.
   ‘I’ll kill you for this,’ I whispered, during the next lull
   ‘Whatever,’ he said, giving me a final kick before he left.
   But unlike most people and their empty threats, I really meant it.

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