Nigel Pickard’s debut novel, “One”, is reviewed at Exultations and Difficulties. We are delighted to be able to publish two chapters of the novel here.
4. Autumn 1978
Aged eleven, Sol’s sent away to boarding school. This is a decision later justified by his mum on the grounds of what was happening at home. Nathan’s his best friend during this time and it embarrasses Sol that Nathan hears some of the arguments, Sol’s mum saying, “Nathan’s here.”, Sol’s father, “I don’t bloody care”, Sol saying “He doesn’t mean it like that. Y’know -”, Nathan forcing a smile.
But going to boarding school might have always been part of the plan anyway. Both Sol’s parents come from working-class backgrounds, both transformed by fifties’ grammar school education, and this choice is another part of their unstoppable ascent. Kate always finds Sol’s residence there funny. She delights in telling people he went to public school. She reckons it took him a good five years to get it out of his system, and he was in fact only at the place for four. At that time, however, he realises that maybe he is relieved to get away from home, especially as his notion of boarding school is based mainly on the Billy Bunter comic strips he reads in Victor every week, all midnight feasts and japish hilarity.
When he arrives, some concepts are familiar from that inky world. Words like tuck-box, pillow-fights, prep, matron and apple-pie bubble up, in frame, in place. Some words are new to him. Because Abbas is darker, he’s a Chinaman or a wog. Sol is four-eyes. He’s immune to that, though, having heard it so many times before, mostly from Jez and Mark, even after the evening when he did what he was supposed to.
He does his best to fit in, though at first he’s not keen on what it takes, the bravado, the one-upmanship, the ability truly to believe what he claims, even when the inflation of events is strikingly self-evident. Everyone has a better story than everyone else. If Etherton’s dad once met Geoff Boycott, then Dolby’s played in the same team as him. If Hartley’s dad has been on Concorde, then Tusa’s has flown it half a dozen times at least. After lights out, this imaginary world can spin around itself for what seems like hours, a Chinese Whispers of increasing logistical nonsense. Sol can never sleep for listening to it all, like it’s some surreal audio-book, although to avoid any direct involvement he often pretends he’s no longer awake. This is especially useful later on when most of the dorm have gone off, leaving awake only two or three of the more dominant personalities like Mulvenny or Anderson, who flit around farting in people’s faces or wiping snot over them. Occasionally, they move the other boys’ beds around. Once, they pick up Doughty, the smallest boy in the room, and dangle him headfirst outside one of the windows. Somehow, and Sol still isn’t quite clear how, maybe Doughty was pretending too, he remains asleep.
Barlow’s another of these more adventurous boys, so the second time he sleepwalks, Sol can’t believe that he’s the one who’s ended up having to follow him. Everyone else is asleep, though, and it only takes him a few seconds to comprehend that he’s no choice. For all Barlow’s bullying (and Sol’s already been on the receiving end of that once or twice), he feels he can’t avoid what his teachers are fond of referring to as responsibility. So he gets quietly out of bed, puts his slippers and dressing-gown on and hesitantly follows Barlow to the door. It’s a cold, pinching, winter’s night, completely silent apart from Dolby snoring, a staccato sawing of knotted wood. Barlow edges forward. Unlike the first occasion the previous week, though, this time he doesn’t stop still at the door. Instead he opens it as deftly as if he’s awake, and leaves the dormitory. Sol bites at the air, an invisible apple, so that his teeth are clenched together with the chill taste of it, then continues after the older boy. His mind is a montage of lurid images, thinking of all the ghoulishness that’s bound to await him outside the safety of where he’s supposed to be asleep.
He turns out into the corridor and sees that Barlow has moved in the worst direction possible - not the cul-de-dac of wall to the left, but right instead towards the stairs, at the further end. The corridor is mossy with darkness, in between slabs of moonlight which lie at odds with the parquet floor. Sol looks down at this and then directly at Barlow’s departing back, ignoring the windows and the gaze of whatever might be outside. The corridor is about twenty yards long and Sol’s thoughts lock themselves into that distance, in a doubtful attempt at rationality, at objectivity, as though he was a gunslinger in the final showdown.
In truth though, he hopes that he’s having a nightmare. One of those where being startled awake will save him from the threat of final terror, or where he can even snap himself out of it if he concentrates hard enough, where everything will simply speed up like water going down a plug-hole. But the more he hopes he’s dreaming, the more definitely he knows he’s not. Everything is as it is. And, as it is, try as he might, he can’t wake up, because he is already awake, and that, unfortunately, is that.
As usual, he’s uncertain what to do, beyond staying close to the other boy to see what happens, where he gets to. He hopes Barlow will soon turn back. Sol will then be able to tell the dorm about it the next morning. It might even be that it’ll do him some good. That the adventure will raise his standing. That he will be feted, and that in bed the next night he’ll risk the slipper from the Pigman, the most disliked house-tutor, telling everyone his story again.
A few feet away, the corridor drops suddenly into the hellishness of empty stairs, the same ones supposedly haunted by the small boy who’d fallen down them a century before, when the House was merely that, and not in the possession of the school. The week before, Sol had wet his bed rather than go down these stairs in the middle of the night. In the morning he’d made the bed up with the sopping sheets at the foot of it, so as to escape detection. The following night he’d tried to kick the dampness away with scrunched up toes, then smelt the piss on his feet in the morning, a reminder of his weakness.
He wants to shout out, but the dread of his cowardice being discovered, of his isolation in the elbowing playground next day, is stronger, and he keeps his noise fused clumsily inside himself. A hundred boys aged between eight and thirteen sleep in the rooms to the right, and he mustn’t wake any of them. He thinks of his mum and dad, asleep fifty miles away, and wishes he was at home there too, whatever’s going on between them. In his own room: in a room all to himself. Keeping himself to himself, his own space, away from everyone else. Him. Just him.
Barlow begins to descend the stairs. As yet there’s no ghost, at least none that Sol can see, though he’s sure he can sense the dead boy. Perhaps by his shoulder or maybe behind his back. He scouts around himself then focuses back on Barlow who continues, not putting a foot wrong. But then, he’s asleep and seems in control precisely because of his unconscious lack of it. Sol prays that Barlow will now return to the dorm. It’s two shades darker here, a dusty skylight in the oblique roof the solitary window, one that appears to drag light out of the building rather than let it in. When Sol looks up, the darkness scurries and swirls. Barlow turns into the bathroom at the right-hand end of the landing, so Sol follows him, his obedient servant. On opposite walls are six different baths facing each other like half a ribcage. The spine is a row of enamel basins, vertebrae tracking the centre of the room.
As they both walk in, the water pipes gurgle, a whispered conversation that, even so, manages to coax an echo. Then, without warning, staggeringly, for a split second, a blink of time, Sol sees someone staring at him, all wild hair and wide eyes. His heart misses a beat, and another, till he realises, as quickly as he didn’t, who it is: himself. Himself, of course, in the dark space he stands in. But even with this awareness his body continues to shake and he sees it doing likewise in the mirror.
He tries to clear his thoughts, attempting to focus on the expected, the everyday. The basin he holds onto, the walls that surround him, the floor. He wonders what the time is. He tries to think: one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock. He tries to level out the situation in his own head. He tries to build up a structure on that levelness. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock. It’ll be morning eventually, he thinks. Eventually it’s always morning. If only the Housemaster was patrolling; but no - even he’ll be asleep in bed. Sol’s heart hammers his chest as though it’s trying to escape. He realises how rapidly he’s breathing, and he attempts to slow it down, but with little effect. The more conscious he is of that process, the less it seems he’s able to do anything about it.
Barlow turns away from the mirror and his unseeing twin. Please, go upstairs! Sol says to himself. Please! Barlow doesn’t, though, continuing instead further downstairs to the main school corridor, whose vacancy seems to buzz the closer they get to it. The corridor is marshalled on one side by classrooms, in which rows of desks are bent double, ready to pounce. Moonlight haunts the first room with the shadows of boys and teachers that have long been and gone, a century or more of them. The room laughs, then all of its occupants are gone. Sol shakes himself, a mixture of the voluntary - an attempt to combat his fear - and the involuntary – the fact that the corridor is freezing cold. He grits his teeth so hard he thinks they might break, before checking behind himself another time. The stairs are still empty, though he’s sure that’s only because he can’t see anything, not because nothing’s there. He feels blood and heat rushing to his head. He pushes his hair back from his eyes, his sweat like Brylcreem across his fringe.
Barlow pauses for a second, then abruptly turns to the left and says, “This way!”
Sol is nearly sick, just managing to swallow the puke that rises into his mouth. It’s as though he’s never heard a human voice before. There’s a noticeable moment before he even understands the sounds as words at all. That what Barlow has said is intelligible, makes sense. Sol holds onto the banisters at the bottom of the stairs to steady himself then meekly replies, “Yes -”, wondering if that will help, will be received. Even to himself his own voice sounds alien, so he hardly expects it to improve his circumstances. It’s like when he’s in trouble with dad at home, when he’s trying to explain and he doesn’t make sense: just because his dad had done such and such at his age, well –
He can’t take his eyes off Barlow, even though he wants to. Barlow brushes past him, he feels the cotton of Barlow’s pyjamas on the back of his hand. Sol’s legs go from under him, as if he’s survived some fairground ride, only to collapse on the return to earth. The contact hasn’t woken Barlow though. He continues walking along the corridor in his chosen direction, towards the school clock, that gazes down on both of them like a cyclopean eye, its ticking slicing the silence, the boxed-in space. The clock ticks as loudly as if it’s at the centre of Sol’s head; his blood ticks faster. His pyjamas stick to him, a febrile skin, though he feels rawly cold at the same time. The ticking taps out the dark like a blind man approaching. Sol feels as if he’s moving along without any choice in the matter, his legs twitching of their own accord as if his nerves are jerking with electricity.
The corridor turns to the right, directly under the clock. Also on the bend is a small, uncurtained window, where night flows in. Though he doesn’t want to, Sol finds himself looking outside. The light appears bluer through the glass, everything submerged. Even the flowerbeds look macabre, stamens grasping at air, the arms of the dead. His imagination is working in fervid overdrive. He pulls back, rotating on the balls of his feet: Barlow is round the corner. To the left is the Common Room.
A glow from inside there arches outwards from the open door, a net of light. Barlow stands entangled in it, and it seems to Sol that, if anything, he’s nearly smiling, his lips flexed by the threat of emotion, of something that Sol can’t get close to going on in his head. Sol follows him into the room, into the light. The balls on the pool table are arranged like wax fruit. Barlow is standing in the centre of the room, facing the hissing fluorescence of the tv left on after closedown. The room shivers with the absence of a channel, a programme, people on the screen. It’s as though Barlow and Sol are the only two people awake in the world, not simply within the confines of the school. There’s a weird enormity Sol feels about the lack of pictures to look at on the tv. It’s as if everything that he ordinarily banks on has been drained away. And now he’s there in the gap, the vacuum it’s left. He looks at Barlow who doesn’t move, his face frozen over, old ice.
From close to the door comes a muted tapping sound. Sol hurriedly moves over behind Barlow, aware, at the same time, that it’s a pointless thing to do. If only Barlow would wake up. But then, as Sol’s father often suggests, life is brimming with those two little words. If only, though. Then Sol notices the curtains move, he’s certain of it, a spasm of fabric. They’re huge, full-length drapes which reach from floor to ceiling like you might see on a stage. “Come on, Barlow!” Sol whimpers. “Come on! Back to bed. Barlow, please! Come on!”
“Come on!” Barlow replies, whining. “Please!” And his eyes flick open like a porcelain doll’s.
Sol’s not instantly confident if he’s heard and seen what he thinks he has. The room spins. He puts his hand on the pool table to support himself, knocking one ball chattering into a number of others. He knows he has to get out of there, back to bed, between his sheets. Sod Barlow, and the rest, none of them would have a clue, he’s done all he can, but it isn’t enough. It’s never enough. Sod them.
At that moment, two of the curtains shudder apart. Suddenly there are two figures screaming abuse at Sol, and then a third exploding through the door. As he faints, he thinks he sees Barlow laughing.
Matron is kneeling over Sol. She smells warm, powdery. He’s in the Common Room. Jonson, the Housemaster, is there. The lights are on, the tv off. Sol feels as though he’s going to be sick. The room slowly begins to right itself. “Alright Roberts, slowly does it,” Matron is saying. “You’ve been sleepwalking, you’re okay now. You’re awake now.”
Next to the pool table stands Barlow, hatefully awake, and next to him his friend Mulvenny.
“Can you sit up?” Matron says to Sol, gently.
Eventually Sol gets the drift, it’s some kind of initiation, the sleepwalking thing. It takes a while, about six weeks or so for him finally to work it out. What he learns to do in response to this is not to care, either way. To cut himself off from the consequences of what he is involved in. He deliberately makes that decision. More than that, not actually to cohere with those actions in the first place. What he does or says is not him. He is not himself. Someone else is doing these things. Therefore whatever happens can hardly matter. He becomes convinced that he can do what he wants because it doesn’t really count. Nothing he does is real beyond itself. So Sol tells himself, over and over. There’s a smashed mirror at one end of the dorm which hangs as a memorial to the day in the Second World War when a stray German bomber dropped its load close by and a piece of shrapnel travelled the full length of the room without harming any of the boys while they slept in their beds. The mirror has remained in its place ever since, with a small plaque attached explaining its importance. When Sol looks at the mirror it makes a Picasso of his face: his face near enough falls to pieces. He looks in this mirror most days, the point of impact just left of centre and the spokes of the glass frozen outwards, and whoever it is, it’s not him. It’s never him.
All this cockiness seems to take the place of play. No-one plays here, not like at home. The boys play sport, they dare each other to do things, but they don’t play. It seems suspect somehow, girlish. Sol starts off cautiously to begin with, makes more noise after lights out, gets out of bed once or twice. The first time he gets caught and is slippered three times by the Pigman he’s surprised, having built it up in his head, how little the punishment actually hurts. More curiously, how he gets a hard-on that pokes his pyjamas like a tent-pole.
Some weeks later, Barlow challenges Sol to hold his breath longer than him, a game that is played late at night, gone eleven at least, with torches like searchlights in the participants’ faces. Both of them sit on the end of their beds holding the metal foot-rail. Tusa and Mulvenny shine the lights, crouched in judgement. They whisper encouragement to Barlow. The rest of the dorm is asleep. Sol sits there and watches Barlow perched on the bed opposite, his face lit up from below like in a horror film. Sol thinks how his own face must look like that too. He’s confident he should be good at this. He used to be able to swim underwater further than anyone else at home, his dad having taken him to the local pool every Saturday morning when he was very young before he had anything to fear. His dad had these things for him to accomplish: swimming, learning to read, riding a bike. They were accomplished.
Barlow tries his best to put Sol off with a series of funny faces, from Screw-loose to Quasimodo, but he eventually has to give up, firstly on the gurning and then finally on the game itself. Sol carries on, the victory confirming a desire to show Barlow and the rest how far he can go. He thinks he could carry on forever, which doesn’t seem that far in front of him. The other three admire this tenacity, and both the torches yoke onto Sol. Sol looks beyond these into the sketchy gloom around them all. It’s like he’s closing his eyes, fading away, disappearing inside himself. He wonders what it would be like to stop breathing altogether. Give it up. The lights, the dark, the encouraging voices of the other boys rise up around him like water, swamp him, drag him under.
When Sol comes to after fainting, there’s blood and mucus everywhere. He pulls his face up from the middle of it all then struggles onto his hands and knees before Tusa lifts him further away. Sol’s hovering in a vortex: the room, the night. When he’s put on his feet, he rides the floor like a skateboard. He staggers around, one hand to his face, the other reaching out from bed to bed to avoid falling over. Barlow tells Sol he’s an effing star. Sol thanks him with a dazed politeness. He feels like what he guesses drunk must be. He wants to stay awake all night. He’s beginning to take to its mutinousness. He strips his bed and cleans up the floor with the sheets while Mulvenny holds the two torches so he can get the job done properly. Suddenly Sol’s laughing the whole time, though his head is an appendage to the pain of his nose. “That was so cool,” Barlow keeps saying. “Did you see that? That was really ace!” A few of the other boys have been woken by the noise and excitement, and already the story warps into something more marvellous than its actual unfolding. The years and years Roberts held his breath, the slow descent of his fall from on high, theacreage of blood. Sol does a drunken lap of honour, and his nose might well be as big as the F.A.Cup.
As a result of this incident, Sol finds his stock rising higher and higher. It means the boys of his own age and also quite a few of the older ones are less likely to try anything. He can see the change in their attitude, they’re more wary. He can take it, so there’s no point bothering.
As this happens, so this whole enclosed world also starts to appear less and less real, certainly the one which can be described as being under the influence of adults. Adults who, Sol begins to realise, comprehend very little about what really goes on in the boys’ lives, however much they fake it. They can’t get close, if you choose to shut them out; and that’s what Sol chooses. It’s like a dream-world during the day as well as later at night. Even Sol’s body is in essence a figment of his own imagination, part of what makes him up. He cuts himself with a compass point then dares the others to do it to themselves too so that they can mingle their bloods together. They all do this, and then it’s done, and that is that. This becomes a truth which saves him.
The next night, he sticks the compass through his foreskin. He wills himself not to feel it, and in fact he feels very little. It’s like he watches this other person doing these things, giggling at what he gets up to. Mulvenny thinks Sol’s tapped, but Sol just calls him chicken and begins to exert more control over the rest. When Barlow gets hold of some cigarettes, Sol smokes one in the dorm. He doesn’t care because he can’t believe it will make any odds, either way. He’s either caught or he’s not, and, as far as he can see, that begins to amount to the same thing, one moment, then the next; and then the next, after that. And all of it at arm’s length, systematic.
Later in the term, Sol is the one who leads the others out onto the roof of the dorm. They snake through the windows and drag themselves up as high as they can. They huddle round a chimney breast at the top, claiming it as their own, four boys in pyjamas and dressing gowns. They smoke their one cigarette between them. The moon and stars hang around their heads, the sky icy with itself, and when Barlow tells Sol that stars aren’t stars but suns, and the light they’re seeing is millions of years old, so that what’s up there no longer exists, it merely goes to prove the point.
9. Late nineties
“Toss you not to take Tom to the supermarket,” Sol announces. Sometimes one of them volunteers to do this, so that the other can get a little peace at home for a couple of hours. “Or you can toss me if you like. Without a coin.”
“What? Are you going to sell him?” Kate says, ignoring the second suggestion.
“I might get 10p.”
“There’s lots of meat on him.”
“Could feed a family of four for a week,” Sol decides.
“You might get more than 10p if you’re lucky.”
“If you push the boat out,” Kate tells him. “Think up a decent sales-pitch.”
Sol strokes Kate’s arm, raising his eyebrows and fluttering his eyelashes at the same time,
“You can take him if you like.”
“Toss the coin,” Kate laughs. “Heads!” she says.
Sol tosses the coin. “It’s tails,” he says.
“Best of three,” Kate smiles. “Fairly obviously the best of three, that’s the rules, set in stone.”
“For generations,” Kate says, “upon generations. Best-of-three.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
“It’s a good job I love you.”
“It is,” Kate says.
Soon it’s the best-of-five, then the best-of-seven, then Sol says he’ll take Tom.
“I’ll take him next week,” Kate tells her husband.
“Whatever, love,” Sol says, getting ready for the trip. Kate comes over, hugs him. “All right, sweetheart?” he says.
“Thank God,” Kate says, “that this happened with you.”
Sol and Tom visit the supermarket. To begin with, Tom stays close to the trolley, hanging on with one hand while conducting an invisible orchestra with the other. Sol steers them through the fruit and veg, the meat. The problems begin when Tom sees a Wallace and Gromit birthday cake. It’s six months until Tom’s birthday, but he wants the cake.
“No cake,” Sol says. “No cake, Tom.”
Tom throws himself to the floor and begins kicking and screaming. Sol crouches down onto his haunches and whispers, “This is silly, Tom. Silly.” Tom kicks at the display of candles and decorations close to the cakes. The display comes tumbling down. “Tom!” Sol says, “For Christ’s sake.” Tom doesn’t realise what he’s done, too busy kicking at the floor to notice. A shop assistant comes over and helps Sol pick the decorations and candles up. “Sorry,” Sol says.
“Never mind, duck,” the assistant replies, smiling. “Kids, eh?”
Tom lies on the floor for five minutes, occasionally calming down, then starting up and blaring at full force again. Sol tries to watch this performance as though he has nothing to do with it.
Within minutes of getting over his tantrum, and just after Sol has chosen to risk continuing with the shopping, Tom decides to take his clothes off. The speed with which he does this is quite impressive, it’s certainly quicker than any time he’s managed it at the appropriate stage of the day at home. There’s puddles of clothes behind him before Sol cottons on to what is happening. He runs back and scoops them up as Tom begins to pull at his nappy. Sol stops this and attempts to pull his son’s trousers back up. As Sol hoists them around Tom’s waist, Tom scratches Sol’s face, so that Sol can feel the blood rising to the surface of his skin like it’s blotting paper. This serves to make Sol more focussed on doing what he has to do around Tom’s attempts to prevent the clothes going back on. It could be a brilliantly choreographed piece of clowning around. But then again. The knot of customers, intrigued by Tom’s innovatory work and Sol’s apparently calm and/or uninterested response, unties itself, and the dad eventually appeases the son with sweets, so that the latter follows, muttering to himself, in their trolley’s wake.
All Sol’s doing is shopping and it shouldn’t really be that difficult. This is one of these routine events that ought to be undemanding, that have abruptly stopped being so: like going for a walk, having a meal, even, occasionally, watching TV. These trivial occurrences are invariably made difficult. There are seldom those moments of simple ease. And Sol knows he’s blaming his son again, which he must stop doing. Poor Tom.
Sol navigates to the checkout and starts transferring the contents of the trolley onto the conveyer. Tom begins his loudest screeching but the noise is a happy variant with an almost sing-song quality to it. Sol feels like he’s near enough made it, mission accomplished, a welcome warmth which eventually washes over him most times he goes out with Tom. He’s survived another expedition. He’s made it to the Pole and back. He doesn’t notice the screeching much nowadays, certainly not in a busy, noisy supermarket with the tills and announcements and the rest of the holy hubbub of shopping.
Sol doesn’t notice, but others do. The middle-aged man behind is tutting as Tom explores his range, while holding his arms out in front of himself, as if he’s awaiting handcuffs, and running on the spot. It seems sort of obvious to Sol that this boy might not be – how does he put it to himself? – like other children, but clearly for some people his deviance is far more threatening. The man looks like the type who thinks he won the war for the likes of Sol to bring up his child badly, though he probably wasn’t even in his teens in 1945. Sol prepares himself, closes off any tendency towards emotion, pulls himself back from the softness that exists within him, tightens up his fists in his trouser pockets, clenches his jaw. He makes this concerted effort in order to convince himself that he has established an insular indifference, an attitude which has worked effectively in the past, both recently and way back. Rather that than losing it, making more of a scene, which always ends up badly, guilt for the whole scenario somehow redoubled.
“Do you think you could keep control of your child?” the man says. “He is yours, isn’t he? I mean to say, he is with you. That assumption would be correct, I take it?”
“He’s under control,” Sol’s voice wavers faintly at first then quickly tautens again. “Not that it’s any business of yours.”
“He’s very noisy,” the man says.
“Oh yeah?” Sol acts bored. Actually, he is bored. He’s bored of people staring. He’s bored of people whispering. He’s bored of being part of a freak-show.
“I think he’s disturbing people.”
“I think you’re disturbing. Very disturbing.”
“No, I didn’t.”
The man tuts again, his head jerking back partially on the sound of it. “He’s disturbing me.”
“Obvious where he gets it from,” the man says under his breath, looking around himself as though it was a general announcement or a call to arms. No-one else seems to paying any attention. No-one seems to be. Though, of course, they presumably are. This is England, after all.
“What?” Tom is putting his hand on the conveyer belt, watching it move.
“I think you heard,” the man replies sarcastically.
“He’s disabled,” Sol says, watching Tom watch his hand, then looking back at the man, who doesn’t seem to have registered what he’s just said. Sol’s beginning to size up what might happen here, thinking through the consequences, wondering whether they’d be worth it or not. Thinking that a confrontation like this might even act as a release. That he could almost literally get everything off his chest, which seems to tighten day by day, which occasionally makes breath difficult. “He has autism. He’s autistic,” he says. The man looks at Sol blankly. “He’s mentally disabled. All right? Is that good enough for you? Are you happy now? Now that we’ve got that sorted.” Sol spits the last two words out. He spits them out all over the man. He wants to follow them up with a left and then a right. He wants to follow them up by kicking the man’s head in.
The checkout assistant starts putting Sol’s food through, pretending not to pay attention to the unforeseen terror in aisle twelve. Tom likes the beep of the food being scanned, so he stands as close as he can, watching that happen, listening to it. He leans right over to the machine. The assistant manages to force a smile at him. Tom ignores her, waiting intently for the next item to be processed. Sol sidles past him to begin filling some carrier bags. His hands are shaking slightly as he rubs the plastic open. The light in the store swings to and fro. He concentrates on the goods, on his hands, on the bag. Tom laughs at the scanner and jumps up and down. “Careful, Tom,” Sol says.
“I’m sorry,” the man blusters, but with a pomposity which suggests to Sol that he still believes himself to be in the right, “I didn’t realise.”
“The noises he’s making are the only sounds he makes. You hear what I’m saying? I’m buggered if I’m telling him to shut up. Alright?”
“I’m sorry,” the man carries on, “you can’t tell, can you? I mean now you’ve told me I can see. Yes, it’s clear now.” Damascus in a supermarket: how very end of the century.“It must be difficult,” the man says.
“Some people make it difficult,” Sol says, placing a few tins into a carrier-bag. “You know what I mean? Some bloody people,” he says - and then he wishes that he hadn’t sworn. The woman on the till keeps her eyes on the barcodes. The man looks the other way, looks as though he’s humming to himself. He wants Tom and Sol out of here. Sol wants Tom and himself out of here. All of them have had enough of this. Sol finishes filling the bag up. Tom begins squawking. Sol ruffles his son’s hair and puts his arm round him. Tom pushes his dad away. Sol feels his breath knotting up. He’s holding onto the trolley, and it’s like the lights in the supermarket are turned up too brightly, swinging this way and then that, and the floor is like there’s an epicentre of some earthquake happening, not far off, not far off from here at all.
Extracts from “One” by Nigel Pickard are © Nigel Pickard, 2005, and reprinted here by kind permission of the author, and Jane Streeter of Bookcase Editions Ltd.
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