2019: The year of the novel

Here’s something new. A chapter from part I of my (nonfiction) novel, Children of the Wildwood, which I hope to finish early in 2019. It’s been a long time coming. With a special shout out to Tony Jee (aka Justice).

Mrs Careless told us to paint space pictures because that was the year of the first space shuttle. The launch happened the week before my birthday but I never watched it. So everyone in class did a space shuttle. Even Manboy did one. It looked just like an airplane. Mash did one too and it looked like a giant knob. A big white knob with stars and stripes on its wings. I was the only one in class who decided to do something else.

I got some black paper and made planets out of smudged chalk. Then I spattered it with white paint to make it look like a thousand stars. When I was done it looked just like space—endless and vast, with a great sweep of black and balls of colour and pinpricks of light. This time I put my name on it and Mrs Careless held it for a long time, looking closely at all its parts. All the other paintings went on the class wall for the parent-teacher night coming up. But not mine. Mine went up above the archway to the cloakroom so everyone at St Paul’s had to look at it.

Mum and Dad got a note reminding them it was parent-teachers night. There was a special note from Mrs Careless to make sure they came. There had never been a special note before and it made them more nervous than me. Dad put on his best clothes. His pants were pressed and his shirt collar was stiff and he kept stretching his neck like a lizard to stop it from itching. Mum wore a frock and sandals and looked like she was going to the disco.

‘Fucking waste of time,’ Dad said.

‘You never know.’

Dad rolled his eyes. Every parent-teacher night was the same. Same bad news, different teacher. That’s what Dad said anyway.

‘It’s embarrassing.’

‘You never know,’ Mum said again. But that was the thing. We did know.

Mum and Dad left and walked up Wildwood Road and I ran upstairs and watched them from their bedroom window. They disappeared up the walkway towards St Paul’s but I didn’t move, not for thirty minutes, until the moment when I saw them walking back again. Whoa was standing with me by then, and so was Gravy. Gravy had dragged the toy box from the alcove in our room and was standing on it so he could see over the windowsill.

‘Here comes the bollocking,’ said Whoa.

I said nothing because I knew it was true. Gravy was quiet. He didn’t like it when Mum and Dad shouted, and he knew what was coming as well. Mum and Dad were walking quickly. My heart was thumping in my neck and the bag of snakes was mental in my stomach.

‘Here we go,’ Whoa said.

‘Justice?’ Dad shouted from the hallway. ‘Come down.’

The bifold doors were open and Mum and Dad were in their chairs already. I hovered at the door. I was half tempted to run out the house and go find Rocky or one of the others. Except it was dark and no one would be out. And anyway, Mum and Dad were smiling. Dad was even showing his teeth. I’d never seen his teeth.

‘Turns out you’re a bit of a genius,’ Dad said.

‘I always knew he could draw,’ said Mum.

‘Mrs whatshername is happy anyway,’ said Dad. ‘That’s a first.’

‘Remember that doctor? He said he was clever.’

‘I didn’t believe you’d done it,’ said Dad.

‘Course he done it. He gets it from my side.’

‘Planets,’ Dad said.

‘He’s always been into space,’ said Mum.

They sat there happy as Larry and with the colour from the gas heater lighting up the room it felt a bit like Christmas. They had nothing more to say so I went upstairs. Whoa and Gravy were at the top of the stairs. They’d been waiting for the bollocking and were just as confused as me. Except they were disappointed too.

‘Lucky!’ Whoa said.

‘Not lucky,’ I said. ‘Genius.’

The next day Mrs Careless entered the classroom and immediately shouted ‘Seven eights!’

‘Fifty-six,’ I called back.

‘Up the front, Justice,’ Mrs Careless said.

It felt like trouble, despite what Mum and Dad had said. All that was too good to be true.

‘Your turn to choose the music for assembly,’ Mrs Careless said.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘Don’t you want to?’

Of course I wanted to. Only the best people got to choose music for assembly. Which meant I was one of the best people. I knew the exact record I wanted before I even went through the LPs. But I took my time anyway, finger-filing every single record slowly, and pulling each sleeve from the box and looking at the covers like I’d seen the grownups do in Track ’n’ Groove, where Dad bought Reggatta de Blanc.

‘Hurry up, Justice,’ Mrs Careless said.

I was allowed to pick two tracks, one for when the school filed in to assembly, the other for when they filed out. My album pick was Holst’s The Planets. My first track was number 1: Mars, the Bringer of War. I put the record on ages before everyone started coming in so I could hear the whole thing. I sat on a school chair beside the record player with my eyes closed because that’s what you did when you listened to classical music. It starts off heavy and glum and a bit depressing, but soon picks up. Orchestra. Horns. Then drums. There’s a Darth Vader bit and then the music flies up and hovers just below the clouds, like Superman. Then higher, up into space. That’s how it sounded, anyway. When assembly was over I played Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. It opens like a Saturday cowboy movie, then it sounds like people coming home, or bakers running down streets carrying loads of bread, and boys kissing girls and women waving handkerchiefs and everyone crying because they’re happy. By the time the needle clicked round and around the run-off groove, the assembly hall was empty and I was alone. It was the best moment at St Paul’s. Ever.

‘Mrs Careless says you have to come back to class,’ Manboy said. He’d been sent to fetch me.

‘In a minute.’

Manboy stayed with me, and went through the records.

‘I’ve never had a pick,’ he said.

‘Yes you have.’

‘Only once.’

I took the needle off the record and put the LP back in its paper sleeve. Then I stared at the cover some more. The Milky Way. The rings of Saturn. Jupiter. And clouds swirling over the Earth.

Grandad and Grandma were summonsed for a family meeting because Mrs Careless thought I was a genius. I wasn’t invited. Neither were Whoa and Gravy, who stayed upstairs in their rooms. I stayed in the hallway behind the bifold doors, listening through the crack.

Grandad was talking. No one else talked when Grandad was talking. His voice filled a small room like a loudhaler. I could just see him, sitting in Dad’s chair, while Dad paced in front of the gas heater. Grandad had a chin that came to a point, like Jimmy Hill. His mouth drooped to one side, perfect for holding a pipe. When I stayed with them on my birthday weekend he let me fill his pipe with tobacco and light it. I smoked it for as long as I could get away with it before he snatched it from my mouth. I loved the port-flavoured tobacco and the heat on my lips. Grandad told me stories from the Second World War. The same ones, year after year. He was a batman who drove a general in a jeep. They hit a mine and the general’s head fell into his lap. Another time he was hiding behind a tree and the Germans tried to pick him off. A bullet took his belly button with it. He showed me the place on his belly where the button was meant to be. In its place was a long scar, pink and white like the flesh of a fish. Grandma said it wasn’t a German bullet at all, but a hernia operation. I preferred Grandad’s story and that’s the one I told the boys at school. Grandad smelt of hops and didn’t like to shave. He brewed beer in a cupboard out the back of their cottage. When he ate soup it dribbled down the side of his mouth and he had a scar on his head from the time he had a haemorrhage and nearly died in hospital. He had visions of sailing to South Africa and climbing to the top of Table Mountain.

When Grandad was round our place, Dad couldn’t sit still. If he didn’t pace about he made excuses and went out to the back garden.

‘What’s he doing out there?’ Grandad said whenever he did it.

‘Gardening,’ Mum said.

Grandad snorted. Everyone knew no one did gardening in our back yard.

‘Tell me again what this Careless woman reckons,’ Grandad said.

‘She says, “This boy really has something”,’ Mum said.

‘What was it?’ Grandad said. ‘What was it he drew?’

‘Space,’ said Dad.

‘Space?’ said Grandad.

‘Planets and things,’ said Mum. ‘It was very good. Mrs Careless said it was masterful. Sign of a genius.’

‘Planets,’ Grandad said, thoughtfully. ‘Not much use for that.’

There was silence then, which often happened when Grandad gave his opinion one way or the other.

‘Tech drawing,’ he said suddenly, as if they’d all been waiting for a solution.

‘Like drafting?’ said Dad.

‘Technically,’ said Grandad. ‘Big money. Good career. Get him into tech drawing. Pens, the lot. We’ll help.’

That was that. There was widespread agreement. Grandad’s plans always got widespread agreement. This time his plan required major changes, mainly to mine and Gravy’s room. No expense was spared. The alcove behind the brown curtain next to the airing cupboard got cleared out and in place of our toys they put in a bench, and on the bench they put a white drawing board, like an easel for office people, and a great big drawing pad and a bunch of technical drawing pens.

‘It cost a fortune,’ Mum said. She said things like that to make me feel bad.

‘Who paid?’ I said.

‘Never mind.’

I knew it was Grandad. Mum and Dad didn’t have money for pens.

Mum and Dad stood there and watched while I took up a tech drawing pen. I drew a straight line and Mum made a sound, like a gasp or a sigh. It was like no one had ever drawn a straight line before. Dad wasn’t so sure. He knew the difference between a couple of straight lines and a piece of art.

‘Can you not do more than that?’ Dad said.

‘Give him a chance,’ said Mum.

’She said he was a genius,’ Dad said.

‘He is a genius.’

‘I’ve watched Rolf Harris,’ Dad said. ‘I know a genius when I see one.’

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