The hundredth day of the expedition

That day we reached Elysium’s front doors. Randall makes crude remarks to a waitress on the terrace.

Two burly men in black, tight-fitting tuxedos root themselves in front of us. Their solidity is immutable and we go no further.

I snatch one dismal glance past a rock-like shoulder. A young woman tilting her head back to laugh. Succulent light glosses her silk dress. Nothing more.

As we trudge back to our campsite, suddenly weariness floods out of my heart, like blood. It is a jumbling torrent and I almost crumple onto the dirt track.

But man, that waitress, Randall whistles.

Clown College Valedictorian

He’d found it somewhere in the smashed up village.

A clown’s foam nose he shouts, popping the grubby red bulb on his own conk.

The younger guys laugh at Lafferty, in his greasy fatigues, the ridiculous nose stuck in the middle of his dirty face. But he and I, we’ve not been talking, so I ignore him.

Imagine that, he says, trying that hard so people like you; all that effort just to be an idiot.

Trouble is, he says, people fucking hate clowns. And he lobs the dirty orb back into the rubble.

Attack of the killer sheep

“Your sheep’s dead.”

We’d get that call regularly – phone calls or people popping round to the house in order to break the sad news.

“Oh, okay. Thanks for letting us know. Which one is it?” whichever family member answered the phone or door would ask.

“The big one.”

By which they meant Igor. He was old when we bought him, traded down to smaller and smaller farms as his age increased, until he arrived with us. He begrudgingly ambled down the ramp of a small horse trailer to examine his new domain: five fields blotched with gorse bushes, and 50 ewes of varying ages and states of ill health.

“I give him a month,” the farmer we’d bought him from said. By which he meant before Igor turned hooves upward and we’d have to drag his bulk back onto a horse trailer and send him off with the Knacker Man.

Although he was old, Igor was by no means decrepit. He had the pugnacious look that elderly East End gangsters acquire: nose flattened, ears chewed; the broad, lumpen face of an old fighter who’s been hit plenty of times but never been put down on the canvas.

He eyed each of us suspiciously, his bulk braced, ready for a show of ovine force. He didn’t last a month. He lasted six years. After all, the work he’d been contracted in to do, which was servicing the 50 ewes, was far from hard. Away from a larger flock, he was the only ram, and the more advanced age of our sheep meant he was not having to participate in the more demanding task of chasing and seducing shy maidens. This was an easy gig for the old bruiser.

At the top of lane that leads to the farm, there is a small triangle of grass and stinging nettles that we rented. This is where Igor lived with some of the more ancient ladies who enjoyed a softer, slower pace of life, away from the main flock. It is perhaps best to think of this pasture as a sheep retirement home. Igor was put here to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the younger ewes. (He may have been old, but Igor showed a dedication to his work.)

This lane is small, muddy and narrow, but a fair amount of human traffic – horse riders, farmers and ramblers would all go past each day. Each of them stopping briefly to note the dead sheep and then hurry to our house to report the corpse. Having received the news, one of us would don Wellington boots and wax jacket to trudge the ten minute journey up to the field to check Igor’s vital signs and discover if he’d had finally trotted off to the big meadow in the sky.

Invariably, he would be laying there, a mound of white like a crash-landed cloud, with crows fighting over the big, ugly banquet that his corporeal mass offered. Each of them squawking, flapping and pecking, eager to get past the woollen wrapper and into the meal itself. Whoever had walked up to the field would lean on the gate for a few moments, to see if the massive frame was moving at all. No, it seemed immobile, not even the slow rise and fall of his breathing. Next, you clanged the field gate shut and clomp over the field, while the rest of the small flock took themselves as far away from the two-legged interloper. Even with all this commotion and the alarm of the other sheep, the mound would stay placid. Maybe this time. There was a simple test that still needed to be performed. You place your hand on Igor’s back. Nothing. Then a gentle tap with the toe of your boot on his behind. And then another, a little harder than the first. Then, foot back as if you’re going to take the cup-deciding penalty at Wembley, and…Whack.

The white hummock would snort and slowly shift itself on to its feet. All the time giving you a look that promised a future full of malice and murder, before giving one of his growling, smoker’s cough bleats and returning to his corpse-like sleep. The crows would noisily decamp to nearby trees, ready to play the waiting game again. “Soon, maybe, soon” they shouted at each other.

Back at the house, Mum would shout from the kitchen “This time?”

“No, just sleeping.”

The shearer hated him. Every June it was a contest. On shearing day all of the flock was gathered in our barn. Each sheep is separated from the main body and funnelled through a passage made of gates tied together with baling twine, into a small penned area, where the shearer waited. He, with a Judo master’s precision, then grapples the sheep onto its bottom, its legs sticking out in front of it and a look of confused disgruntlement on its face, like an old matron having to travel to church in a motorcycle side car.

Getting Igor sheared required a group effort. The first year we had him, Dad said to the Shearer “the new ram’s a bit mean, you might need some help.” The shearer smiled the smile of someone who had just been patronised and was now more than happy to throw some patronisation back. He reminded my father of how long he’d been a journeyman shearer of sheep, of his long acquaintance with our family, as well as the other farming families of the area, how he had – with the grace of a martial arts black belt – manhandled literally thousands of sheep, and just because we seemed a little bit awed by our new ram, we were seriously underestimating the skill and knowledge of livestock that he brought with him, along with his motorised shearing machine. With the satisfied air of a man who had done some first class patronising, he took up position next to the wrapped packs of wool and the dangling umbilical of the shearing machine.

We chased Igor down the lane of gates towards the shearer. Igor skidded to a halt on the greasy, dung-smeared wooden boards that acted as flooring in the shearing section. He eyed the shearer, the shearer eyed him back.

“Him,” the shearer whispered.

It could have been professional pride or mere hubris that decided the shearer’s mind. With the resoluteness of the congenitally brittle-boned stepping into a wrestling ring, he put one hand under Igor’s chin, the other on the ram’s back leg and twisted the animal on to its rear. Igor went over and for a second both man and sheep weighed their surprise at this turn of events. Then, with the flick of the shoulder Igor righted himself, flinging the shearer onto the feculent floor. Happy that the natural order had been resumed, Igor stood glowering at us all.

“We usually work in a three person team – two on the legs and one on the head,” my dad said from his place behind the corridor of gates. “Yes, that might be for the best,” the shearer agreed for his new position staring at the shed’s rusty tin ceiling.

Before we continue, I must warn you that Igor did not share any character and motivations that one would recognise as human; sheeply thoughts occupied his sheepish brain. The world of nuance that balances ethics and action, the rainbow state where it is possible for someone to ask ‘Is this the right thing?’ has an ovine population of exactly zero. Sheep and humans inhabit the same space, well sheep live in fields and barns, humans live in the houses next door, but the worlds they populate are different. After the fact, Igor would have given no more thought to the event that I am going to relate now and his role in it. It is up to soft-hearted humans to chronicle his crimes , or indeed to call them crimes at all.

You see, he was a murderer, too.

Every year, just when the weather begins to promise spring, we’d take Igor mumbling and complaining out of the top field and move him to the field with the main flock. It was time for him to earn his keep.

However, Igor may have been as full of seed as a cheap orange, but after a couple of years, he became complacent in his roll of farm stud. If he wasn’t so cussedly vital, we might have suspected his age. Instead, like a king surveying his harem, he had become complacent. He knew that the flock was his alone and was safely so, as he was the undisputed ruler of the farm. With that, he stopped servicing the ewes with his usual alacrity.

A mighty king in his dotage can look back at the sons and daughters he has sired and know he has fulfilled his regal destiny and secured his kingdom. Rams on the other hand, are there to do a job. Albeit, one that comes naturally to them.

If they’re not performing, then there’s no baby lambs coming. And, while sheep don’t know it, unmoved as they are by the year’s trek across the calendar, lambs happen to a timetable. Not as precise as the one trains run on, but its requisites are the same.

Raddle punctuates this timetable. This rectangle of oily crayon, about the size of an old tobacco tin, is fixed on a ram’s chest by way of a harness. As the ram goes about his job, the gummy colouring is rubbed on each ewe’s back, and so the farmer knows when that sheep might be expecting her lambs. Each week the colour is changed. So as he travels from rear end to rear end, the ram leaves an unctuous map of greens, blues and oranges behind him.

In his complacency, Igor crept through the flock like a lazy pointillist. Dots of raddle appeared so slowly we might never get the full picture. At the rate Igor was operating, lambing season would stretch across several years.

To look at him, happy and relaxed, albeit with that underlying mien of anger, it was easy to see that he was asking himself (in his sheeply, non-human way): why should he apply himself with any vigour? After all, who builds warships in peacetime? Who thinks about umbrellas when it’s sunny?

Dad made some phone calls and the next Saturday a Range Rover arrived in the field, pulling a shiny, scrubbed-clean a horsebox.

“Meet Sebastian”, my father said, as he opened the box’s back ramp and let it swing on oiled hinges to the grass.

We’d never had a pedigree ram, a pedigree anything, on the farm before. Our animals were the motley rags of other flocks. The animals that other farmers didn’t have the enthusiasm to take to market were the ones that inevitably ended up grazing our fields. Sebastian trotted from the trailer like a prince, his fleece glowed golden, his manicured hooves making an elegant clip clop noise, instead of the harried clatter that usually accompanied a new animal’s entry to the flock. Sebastian was used to his personal carriage and the oohs and aahs that normally taciturn farmers would utter upon seeing him. We slipped a raddle harness on him, which he accepted with the noble indifference of a lord being dressed by his manservant. With that he trotted out into the field.

For us borrowing Sebastian was a win-win situation. Either the presence of the snotty new ram would throw Igor into a fury of sexual jealousy, whereupon he would propel himself at the ewes’ backs with renewed passion and spiteful abandon. Or Sebastian – the young and vital potentate – would tour the field, bestowing the flock with plump, regal lambs. As a family, we retreated to the fence to see what would happen.

Sebastian, his head held high, trotted further into the field. He assumed the haughty stance of all nobility surveyed his new harem. The ladies all turned to look at him and then went back to slowly cropping the grass. While the elderly flock greeted him with indifference, another gaze scorched across the grass towards him. Igor had spotted his rival. He did not like what he was seeing. To make matters worse, it was some posh git acting like he owned the place.

“Look, look,” my dad said, “he’s seen him.”

Igor lumbered into the centre of the field to face off against his new rival.

The two rams stood 10 yards apart and squared off against each other. Sebastian turned to the ladies, with a look that clearly said ‘Watch this, ladies. I’m going to batter this old…’

Clunk is the same sort of sound you achieve by clapping two big pieces of wood together – a dry, decisive plosive that hurts your ears a little bit when you hear it. It’s also the noise that two sheep skulls make when they make contact, at speed. Igor had seen his moment and took it, he attacked at full speed and head down.

Sebastian’s life as the fêted and rosetted darling of agricultural shows had not prepared him for the kind of dirty brawling that went on in the rougher pastures of Cornwall’s farms. It’s unlikely that he’d even considered the ugly old oik would even dare challenge him. Instead, the fight was what is known in fighting circles as a classic two hitter: Igor hit Sebastian; Sebastian hit the floor.

“Ah”, said my father. At the exact same moment that Igor’s head had connected with Sebastian’s, making that resolute clunk, my father was struck with an equally forceful realisation. Perhaps borrowing a costly pedigree ram might not have been such a good idea after all.

In fact, the prize ram never really recovered. He became listless and somnolent. He visibly drooped; he wouldn’t lift his head, his movements slowed. It became more and more obvious as the days passed that this wasn’t a psychic collapse caused by Sebastian’s swift and embarrassing defeat, but something physical. With that one sucker punch of a headbutt, Igor had shattered something in the other sheep’s brain.

We called the vet, but only to confirm what we already knew: Sebastian was scrambled.

Boxers who have had their brains beaten to mush get around the clock care, physiotherapists scuttle round them; specialists loom, brandishing clipboards reamed with prognosis and test results. Sheep, prize-winning or not, do not. They get loaded on to the van and make the journey from which they never come back. Which is what happened to poor Sebastian.

It maybe tempting to think of him as similar to Archduke Franz Ferdinand on his fateful tour of the Balkans – losing his life because of forces much bigger than he could hope to control or understand. You could think that, but it would be foolish. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is such singular purpose that it would not apply to the majority of people’s lives. The lesson is a simple one: sheep can be surprisingly dangerous; at least to other sheep.

As for Igor, well in some ways my dad’s plan worked. My father may have indirectly killed a prize ram, but Igor’s murderous attack proved to be a perfect cure we were looking for to solve his regal impotence. His raddle marks spread through the flock like measles spots.

The next year, my father went to market and bought a young ram – something ugly and mean spirited. Igor retired to the top pasture for good. There he stayed for another eighteen months, feigning death and then defying the crows by creaking to his feet again.

Finally, when the boot to the rump stopped working its miracle of revival and he died, journeyman shearers across the region rejoiced. Dad backed the van into Igor’s diminished kingdom and we grunted and heaved his body into the horse trailer. Each of us sweating and groaning to move the impossible lump of wool and cartilage up into the container.

He has old and he was mean – an unrepentant killer. But I like to think that across Cornwall, there are flocks of his ungainly, knobbly-faced progeny, cornering terrified ramblers against hedges, where their cries for help drift away to snag amongst the brambles and blackthorn.

The one thing that my wife and I argue about

Arguments with my wife usually occur when we are in cars and especially when I am driving. She doesn’t think I am a good driver, so a lot of our angry exchanges are based on this premise: our vehicular deaths brought about by my poor road skills.

Whether this is true or not, I’m not sure. I make mistakes, but to extrapolate this upwards to maniac stunt driver, or downwards toward Mr Magoo style blind incompetence, seem unfair. These are the two sides of the argument:

  • Oh my god. Watch out!
  • I can see, calm down

A lot of her nervousness will come from the fact that she has changed position from driver to passenger. The passive partner in any journey, your control of the situation is non-existent. You are trusting your life to the skill, concentration and hand/eye coordination of another person. You are wholly controlled by the decisions that this other person makes.

I don’t know what this says about our relationship, that my wife is uneasy trusting my with her life. Whether this is a deader uneasy at my ability to navigate us through life, it only manifests itself during car journeys.

It may be my hope that this mistrust isn’t a symptom of something deeper, that I tend to put her nervousness and nonplussed reactions to my driving style down to a change in her relative position in the car. The passenger seat being closer to the side of the road means that everything from pavements to trees and cyclists looms much more in that side of the windscreen. The green blur of hedgerows rushes past mere metres from your face. For someone who’s used to navigating a journey looking at the centre of the road and the on-coming traffic this new position is disconcerting. You are too close to the side of the road!

In fact, one of her major complaints is ‘You’re too close to the side of the road!”. This injunction to panic is normally delivered when we’re travelling down country lanes. Roadways that, by their very narrow, windy nature mean the side of the road is encroaching, no matter what. To steer away from the road edge on her side of the car would be to introduce the front end of the car to the other edge of the road on my side.

My main fear in country roads is that I will meet oncoming traffic and have to reverse. Because reversing is not a strong point in my driving skills. When I have to, for instance around the occasional corner, maybe even a parallel park, but a 60 second journey backwards as I try to find a passing point – terrifying.

The second contention between my wife and I when I am driving is the distinct difference in our driving styles. That I am happy to drive down hill in a high gear, unless advised by roadside signage that this is a bad idea, fills her with terror. Steep hills are meant to be driven down in third gear or lower. While I concede that this is a much safer option, it’s much less fun. If she knew that occasionally I like to pop the car out of gear and let gravity pull the car down the decline, I imagine that divorce papers would be drawn up. As an aside to other drivers, yes I do realise that this is much more dangerous than other forms of propelling your vehicle downhill, it’s an infrequent treat, like doughnuts: it’s okay once in awhile, but every day and it’s becoming a problem.

The difference in our styles is probably best illustrated with our attitude to parking. My mantra is simple: between the lines is fine. If the car’s a little wonky, so what? As long as I’m not encroaching on other drivers’ space or creating problems for them either accessing or manoeuvring their cars, who cares?

The answer: my wife. She is happy to take the extra…however long it takes…to get the car bang in the middle of the space, equidistant from the white lines on either side. When I am driving, my lackadaisical approach to precision parking causes short bouts of intense shouting and the slamming of car doors when we exit the vehicle. My slapdash attitude to fitting the car perfectly in its allotted spot is partly to do with my reluctance to reverse unless entirely necessary and partly because I just don’t care enough about parking cars to give it the mathematically precise operation that she thinks it deserves.

Sexism dictates that men are good at parking and women bad. You might notice here that the roles are reversed. So does this make me the feminine element of the relationship and my wife the masculine? No. I would say that her need for precision versus my slacker, this-will-do approach reflect appropriate gender responses that people expect in other stereotypical husband/wife, man/woman exchanges.

For instance, the washing up. On the occasions when washing up liquid and water need to be poured and dishes cleaned (we have dishwasher, so this is a rarity), my wife will wash up, rinse the cleaned plates, stack them, let them drain, dry them and return them to their appropriate cupboard. She will them clear the plug hole of of food debris, wipe the sink and side, before returning everything to its allotted place.

I will do…most of that, but definitely miss at least one glass from the washing/rinsing phase. I will also not dry and replace any of the cleaned and dried crockery – I washed up, what more do you want? Meanwhile my food debris removal will be cursory, at best. And even if I did perform an industrial scrub down after washing up, there’s still the bloody glass. How did I miss that, how?

Come to think about it, there’s two things that my wife and I argue about.

Written in response to Daily Prompts: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/argument/

Stealing

On Saturdays Jon and I take the bus into town and go stealing. The bus chuffs and chugs, down the small country lanes, with branches lancing out of the hedges to clatter against the windows, while everyone sits wet and hunched inside, like unhappy chickens inside the damp swelter of the coop.

Town is 60’s bleak: a concrete scab amongst all the green. And there is nothing there: a Woolworths, five inhospitable pubs, a travel agents with bright, optimistic light spilling around the destination cards stuck in its windows; a three screen cinema with red velvet seats, the arm rests all worn down to the nubby beige thread. A set of concrete blocks arranged haphazardly beside the council chambers and county courts. All of it named after a forgotten saint.

We trek round Woolworths, stuffing penny sweets into our coats, steam rising from our damp backs. Jon always braver than me, acting like he had nothing to lose; a ruffian. Underneath his lank hair: a sneer.

Me, my reality is more prosaic: I steal nothing. Instead I follow Jon down the ranks of cheap kitchenware, winding through aisles of thin, polyester pillows, my heart furious and fiery with terror, because I am secretly a civilian, a citizen. I am no more likely to shoplift from Woolies than I am to rob an old lady at gun point. Not even a lookout, because later, in the corner of the grey echoing multi-storey car park, I am almost boastful in my tales of near misses: I would of, but the man in the blue shellsuit had the look of a store detective, else I definitely would of. My mouth working to convince myself as much as Jon against the cowardice that compresses my hypocrite heart.

And one day, I know that Jon knows it too. He says:

“This is bullcrap. You’re scared. You never do anything. You’re a coward.”

My mouth works up and down, supplying the mechanism to say the words that my brain won’t supply – a piston rasping away to itself; wearing down. Why won’t my brain pull the pin and provide the words that my piston mouth needs? Because they are words that could lead to terrible things: prison and ruination; tall policemen with black hats and boots who will treat me with the polite and courteous contempt that a criminal deserves. I see my mother weeping, leaning against a white institutional wall, while road safety posters and duty rosters glare down from overcrowded notice boards.

But I am trapped. The brave person’s option is to refuse. To confess: no, I will not steal from Woolworths because I know that theft is wrong and secretly I am ashamed that I associate with someone who would flout laws and moral codes so flagrantly just to acquire sweaty fistfuls of fizzy fish. Heroes would stand now and say “I am sorry Jon, but our lives are precious, our time scarce and there is so much more to do than pilfer for petty thrills. But I am not a brave man. It is 1993 and I am uncomfortable teenager with one friend and little imagination.

We head back to Woolworths.

Jon’s voice is low and bubbles with spite: ‘you better thieve something pretty spectacular, less on Monday morning I’m telling the whole class how much of a little prick you really are.” So we got through the double doors, with their chrome frames and finger-smudged glass, back into the rank damp stink of the department store. Up and down the aisles we go, Jon behind me, the rough feel of his anger pressing against me, pushing me up and down the corridors of goods, looking for something to rob.

And what to choose for this sacrificial offering? What token to propel me from the light into the dark of being a criminal mind? We cruise the shelves of music, but there’s nothing here – the cassette cases are all empty and the kiosk is too close. Perhaps I can snatch a batch of blank tapes – five Memorex cellophaned together. But no. These are kept in the cashier’s eyeline. Too risky and a sure sign that the company knows it is an easy victim of teenage crime and protects itself accordingly. From the corner of my eye I can see the bland but eloquent warning ‘Shoplifters will be prosecuted’.

Meanwhile, all this time, my minds is narrating its rushing stream of desperate logic. If we take too long, we will look suspicious; they have seen us leave and come back again; murders always return to the scene of the crime; looking too closely will make you look guilty; not stopping at all makes you look guiltier still. And then, there is was.

We are in the kitchenware section and hanging from a long finger of metal a solitary pairing knife dangles, beckoning. Cable-tied to a rectangle of white cardboard with a drawing of tomato slices on it, the knife is perfect. After all, what boy doesn’t appreciate the potency of a knife? Jon couldn’t argue that this wasn’t a suitable object to pocket. The sharp blade added its own danger – weapon. It is also on one of the end displays so out of sight of the tills and customer browsing mugs an aisle away.

I stand there and stare at the knife and it stares back, goading me. Its dull, black plastic handle and short snub-nosed blade are as distant and precious as the crown jewels. I feel Jon’s breath on my neck as he presses over my shoulder to see what I have decided to pocket. In his dsire to see more, or to intimaidate me and prove that this act of rebellion and danger is beyond me, he is jostling, pushing me into the display. An image flashes through my head of a startled shop assistant finding me impaled on rows of hooks that jut twenty centimetres from the metal backing.

I push Jon back and he wheels back. His reaction overemphasised, almost dramatic enough to draw attention. He’s having fun and more importantly, I suspect he wants me to get caught.

“Go on, grab it.” His hiss is stagey and in my ear sounds like a shout that should echo as faraway as bedding and light fixtures, over at the other side of this store. I tell him to eff off, and nudge him backwards again.

“Give me room you git.”

And I realise that if I pull this stunt off, I have beaten him. Anyone can rob fistfuls of pick n mix: reach a grubby hand beyond the ranks of plastics lids to squelch together gummy sweets. But this. This is something real and serious, beyond playing at tough. An action that might even stretch outwards away from my awkward, sweaty, uncomfortable self and towards that shimmering other, the willow o’ wisp of Cool. Not cold, like September mornings huddling towards school. But Cool, with it’s capital C and its undefined promise of a sweeter life. What happens in Cool is nebulous and unreal on the outside, but it’s rewards and riches, I’m sure, would swim drastically into life once you have arrived there. A psychic Brigadoon that straightens your back, makes your long hair less greasy, clears the galaxies of blackheads that sprawled across the map of your face.

My hand travels a million miles to get to the knife. It takes years. Civilisations rise, prosper and crumble in the time it takes for my arm to extend and my fingers to open and touch the mat roughness of the card backing.

And the knife fights back. The friction between the card and the metal hanger it is suspended from, means I have to wiggle it along the length of the hook. At the end of the hook, it turns up slightly towards the bulbous rubber tip at its end. Like a tired child, the knife sits at the bottom of this small slope and refuses to go any further, no matter how hard I tug.

Suddenly everything, I mean everything, rushes in. Space puckers around me, the shop’s lights get brighter, the shushing noise of people shopping becomes a clamour. Above it all the PA system announcing “Patricia to Aisle 3, please” screams above everything else. Are we in aisle three? Have I been discovered? Patricia flashes in my mind as having forearms that bulge with muscles, like Popeye’s. In fact even the two anchor tattoos are there. Her hands like steel grabbers grasping me firmly by the throat. I gag as I feel them clamp down on me. Quick, my heart yammers, quick.

A final yank and the knife lurches over the upturn and rubber stopper and comes free.

In my hand, the knife and its packaging feel huge: too big to fit in any of my pockets. Pulling up my jacket and T-shirt to stuff it down my jeans seems too ostentatious a gesture, especially with Patricia and her car-crusher hands coming my way. Pushing the knife down my top also feels like it would draw attention as well. I curse myself for having not planned this better. There’s no option but to hold the knife in my hand as discretely as possible and just walk out of the shop. So that’s what I do.

With every step, the exit shrinks further away from me. Shoppers crowd aisles and lurch in front of me, like so many obstacles. Where’s Jon? I can’t bear to turn my head to see if he’s following me. I imagine him behind me, making exaggerated pointing signs, leaping and waving, miming look look, thief. Inside my chest I feel a flush of hatred. I hate Jon so much that for a second it’s so hot that the fear shrinks back, my breathing stills, I feel calm. Knowing that I am going to effing kill that prick becomes a boost, a charge of calm, and I am out.

Wet September rain slaps me, tugs my coat. I ma outside and still calmly walking – fast yes, but calm – past the butchers, past the Lord Harding public house, past the travel agent with its Corfu package holidays and cut out palm trees, to the carpark, lower level two.

“Man, that was a rush” Jon is shouting. My breath is coming in huge gasps, as if I have run miles. “Let’s see it,” Jon says, and I hold out my hand, with the purloined knife sitting on my palm. The card backing is squashed and soggy where I have grasped it so tightly. We both stand and stare at this stolen article, as if it was some alien emblem, out of place and disturbing, like a sunbather in the Arctic.

It is five o’clock and autumnal dark is seeping through the cloth of the sky. Our corner of the car park is becoming a square of darkness. As a car swings past, its lights wash us and Jon and I turn our faces up in surprise. The white Os of our surprised faces are a guilty white. We run to the bus station.

For days I wait to feel different, for the miasma to part like a curtain so I can enter the realm of cool. But the shimmer never recedes. Jon tells people at school. He at least is impressed, but no one else is. Sarah Black and Tracy Bills jeer ‘thief, thief, thief’ at me in the corridor on Tuesday as I walk past them on the way to Maths. The words tear at me and panic dives into my chest causing a splash I thing the whole school will hear. I look around to see if any teachers have heard, but the corridor is a huddle of children. Even so the fear continues to do back stroke up and down my heart for the rest of the day. Now I’m also terrified that Thief might become a nickname.

I’ve kept the knife in the back of a draw in my bedroom. It’s still attached to its cardboard backing. I’m unsure what to do with it. I worry that if I remove the packaing my mum might discover it in the bin. I can’t face that confrontation – why do you need a pairing knife? Me: wordless and shifting from foot to foot under her concerned gaze. It sits there like the key to a lock that has been lost. Somehow this cheap kitchen utensil grants me access to a place I desperately want to be but don’t understand. Sometimes I take it out of its hiding place and just stare at it. If it looks back at all, it’s to accuse me of some stupidity. It goads me, reminding me that I own something sacred and precious but am too callow, too ignorant, to know how to use it.

Jon telephones the next Saturday and the Saturday after asking if I want to catch the bus into town to go shopping. He adds an emphasis to the word shopping. I say no; make my excuses.

Life of dolls

As a child, he’d always been told dolls were for girls. Which was why the collector made him uneasy, cradling the porcelain doll lovingly between his grey fingers.

Buster sensed the doll’s huge cash value and his greed had made him hunt out the collector.

He was beginning to regret having it valued in this squalid little shop. But it was called ‘life of dolls’.

Small, wet tuts of appreciation escaped the old man’s mouth..

“I love dolls. Especially when they bring me something so fun to play with,” the old man says. Slipping past Buster to lock the door.