Thanks for everyone who came to see me and other Unthank writers read at Live Lit Lounge at the Birdcage in Norwich last night. Thanks also to Catherine Woodwood for organising the event, which was great fun despite the sweltering night.
I read from a story in The Syllabus of Errors called I Remember Nothing, and from a new story called Inversion.
For anyone who could not make the event, here’s the extract from I Remember Nothing I read last night (I’m hanging on to Inversion for now).
I Remember Nothing
“When Mr Paul Fischer of number 76 Yewlands died, an article in The Sentinel, the local paper I used to deliver after school presented strong circumstantial evidence that he had, in fact, been Martin Bormann. Until forensic scientists proved that rather than manage our sub-post office for forty years Bormann had been buried under the Lehrter Bahnhof in West Berlin, I lived with the guilt that I had delivered a low-quality free newspaper to Hitler’s feared private secretary.
The Fischer/Bormann Scandal was not unusual in the little Surrey town that I now call Banberg. Back then The Sentinel’s resident Simon Wiesenthal also exposed a Mr Harry Glass of 28 Buff Avenue as Hartwig Glassman, a guard at the Flughelenlager Concentration Camp. Nothing was ever proved, though extradition proceedings reached an advanced stage in the case of Mr Teddy Hummel, accused by the same troublemaker at The Sentinel of being a willing participant in the 1942 Józefów Massacre.
I never saw or met any of these men on my round. All I remember of 76 Yewlands is that the crazy paving looked like the patterns on the skin of an adder. In Buff Avenue, the swathes of pampas grass would hiss in the breeze. Glass’ house, I think, was the one with the rotting pink porch and the dog inside which always howled. I have no idea where Hummel lived, behind which mock-Tudor facade or pebble-dashed bungalow he hid his secrets, if he had secrets, if he was who they said he was.
It was always quiet back then, especially after school, when the shops began to close for the evening and the pubs hadn’t yet opened. When I was fifteen, one afternoon a week I trudged the streets carrying a fluorescent orange sack stamped with The Sentinel’s logo. I would start at the edge of the Common and look back for luck at the turrets of the disused mental hospital that peeped over the tops of the fir trees. Marching up and down the gravel drives of the Victorian villas that bordered the Common it was easy to imagine that you were in a science fiction novel. The human race had mysteriously vanished, except for one resourceful and charismatic boy. In the overgrown garden of a thirties semi on Upton Lane I remember the feeling of trepidation when the gate cracked shut behind me and I faced a house with windows so thick with dirt that a walled-up cube of darkness seemed to glimmer through puncture marks in its casing. If I saw a Range Rover parked in a driveway, its roof encrusted with bird droppings, possibly in the shade of a leylandii hedge, maybe somewhere like Stoneleigh Drive, I would picture its owner staring out to sea from a cliff-top café. Nothing would remain to suggest that he’d been there beyond a pocketful of change abandoned in a saucer. I had already realized that in Banberg everyone has something to hide.
Years later, long after I’d left, a Banberg resident was arrested for shoplifting in the nearby town some call Slutsk. He turned out to be a Serb wanted for war crimes in Croatia. Allegedly, he’d captained a militia that tortured civilians during a raid on a village in the self-proclaimed breakaway Serb Republic of Krajina. Neighbours reported him to be ‘remarkably quiet and polite.’ A Croatian government statement said, ‘We are grateful for his capture, although it is true that we did not have [Banberg] on our radar as a possible hideout.’
This last statement struck me as profoundly naive. Banberg was the first place I would have looked. They don’t call it Little Paraguay for nothing.
Sometimes, like in the interview I recently gave to a Saturday newspaper, I like to joke that when I was growing-up in the self-proclaimed breakaway Republic of Banberg (a puppet state that in the mid-eighties flourished briefly in territory between the southern rim of Greater London and Old Surrey) we English were second-class citizens. We had to sit behind the Germans at school and because of them were deprived of certain recreational facilities and study options. My lack of sporting prowess and my near-ignorance of the sciences can be attributed to these disciplines being considered ‘German preserves’.
At the time, though, my problem was not the diktat of an imposed Teutonic hierarchy. My problem, at the start of my fourth year, was Peter Morrison, the new Scottish kid who in two terms had already carved out a reputation as something of an enforcer. My crime: posh voice and being a spaz on a level even lower than the obvious greasers and bookworms. I know now that due to the Highland Clearances and something to do with the imperialism of the Queen’s English, bullying me was a heroic act of post-colonial resistance. I would later come to feel sorry for him; at least I’m wise enough to know that I have to say this now. I must tick this box or appear unsympathetic, still at heart a Banberger. The day I first met Mr E was the day Morrison ambushed me after school on Senlac Road.
I blame the Walkman. It was a grey plastic thing the size of half a brick, a free gift when I’d opened my first bank account that I could squeeze into my blazer’s side-pocket. The orange foam headphones no doubt helped Morrison sight me from a distance. I was walking beside a high wall. The overhanging branches of apple trees swayed in time to a track from Ignite the Seven Cannons. I didn’t have a hope of hearing him come up behind me.
When my chest hit the grass verge a harsh click snapped in my ear. My first panicked thought was not that I might have dashed a hole in my trousers again but that the Walkman had broken. I’d also dropped my school bag. It was standing bolt upright in the gutter. As I reached out for it something pressed down on my ankle.
‘Alright there, Bridesheid Revisited. Gizzus a listen.’
From my low-down angle his cheekbones seemed even sharper than usual. His face tightened further as he forced his basketball boot down on my ankle.
‘Is that electric jazz-funk you’re listening to, Bridesheid?’
Mums with pushchairs and girls from the grammar school ambled past us. Dog-walking pensioners strolled on the other side of Senlac Road, probably veterans of Anzio and Tobruk (maybe not these battles actually; this was Little Paraguay after all). None of them seemed to notice a lanky monster about to break my leg in two.
‘C’mon, Brides, gizzus the funk.’
I didn’t have the funk. The funk – all that Shakatak and Shalamar stuff – was music for boys who already had girlfriends. He knew that I didn’t have the funk. I knew that this wasn’t about the funk. Earlier, in the first history class of the new term, Mr Priskin, after the Kenneth Williams impressions had died down – the Jazz Funkateers had recognized that his right ear was newly pierced – taught us all about the political upheavals that beset the early years of the Weimar Republic. With what seemed like great sadness he’d explained the failure of the left-wing Spartakist Rising and with great relish the defeat by general strike of the nationalist Kapp Putsch. He described with weary contempt the Freikorps as irregular paramilitaries no better than hired thugs and racist skinheads. He seemed to scowl at Morrison; and I for some reason, for no reason, sniggered. Afterwards in double Geography, Morrison stared me out while everyone else was trying to distract Mr Jagger with questions about solar flares and the political flare-up caused by the sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour.
‘Don’t be scared, Brides,’ said Morrison. ‘No worries if it’s only Electro.’
‘It’s Electro,’ I spluttered.
‘Good stuff, Brides. You’re a good man, really you are. Here.’
The pressure lifted from my ankle. He held out his hand, which seemed to be offering to pull me up, but instead it flashed into my pocket to grab the Walkman. When I struggled to my feet he was exploring its panels and buttons with his fingers like he’d never seen one before. He flipped the catch and grimaced, as if inside I’d hidden a picture of Mr Priskin. I had a reputation as Priskin’s pet that no one, not even the other grease-worms like Mellis and Woods much admired.
‘Hey, this is not electric jazz-funk, Brides,’ he said. ‘Absolutely hunacceptable.’
He threw the Walkman high in the air. The headphones and their lead trailed after it like a kite’s tail until the whole contraption dipped. From somewhere behind the apple trees came a thud and a tinkling of plastic. Morrison then picked my school bag from the gutter and sent it over the wall in a similar arcing trajectory.
‘Run along and do your homework, Bridesheid. I’ll collect it in the morn.’
I watched, sweating murder as he loped off down Senlac Road.
Heaving myself onto the top of the wall took three quite painful and humiliating attempts but there was no way I could go home with a grazed cheek and no school bag or really expensive free Walkman. With one leg hanging down on either side I paused to make sure that I wasn’t about to drop into a pit of slavering attack-dogs
(Little Paraguay, remember). Away from the trees a lawn sloped gently down towards a house. A patio and wicker chairs were set out in front of french doors. Beyond the trees, where the slope began, there stood an old man in a white shirt. My school bag lay at his feet. The pages of my French textbook and other papers rippled on the grass. He was holding a piece of paper in his hand, a map Mr Priskin had given out earlier. The old man looked over to where I was perched on his wall. He must have realized that he was being watched. This is how I came to meet Mr E.
I was afraid, even though I knew that he might well be more scared of me than I was of him. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. He maintained a rigid, composed stance, the paper now rolled in his fist.
‘Can I come down and get my stuff?’ I called out.
He merely nodded. My ankle throbbed as my shoes hit the dirt. I approached him with what I remember now as a crab-like, hunched walk, my only thought being to regather my things and get out as quickly as possible. I kept my eyes fixed to the ground and scanned for the Walkman. The back panel had detached. The cassette lay close to an herbaceous border. I picked up the parts onehandedly and rammed them under my armpit. Half-crouched, I started to scrabble around for the papers and books in a hopping toad-like way.
‘I don’t think you intended to throw your own possessions over my wall, young man,’ he said. There was an accent, though not a strong or harsh one.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Really sorry. Sorry to bother you.’
‘You know who did this?’
‘I’m sorry, really sorry, I’ve said sorry.’
‘Hey, calm yourself. You shouldn’t let others push you around.’
I stuffed the last of the papers into my bag and took my first clear look at him. He was much taller than me, taller even than Morrison. A halo of pale sunlight flamed around his hair. He had a lot of hair for a man of his age, much more than any of my elderly relatives, and his suntan made his skin seem as thick as the brown paper we used to wrap our textbooks.
‘Quite an ordeal, eh?’ he said.
‘It won’t happen again, I promise.’
He was still holding the map, Mr Priskin’s map, Europe in 1919, a duplicate machine job with the old pre-war borders in red and the post-Treaty of Versailles frontiers in indigo-blue. That map had already showed me wonderful countries that would never exist again, like Latvia and Estonia, and obscure and exotic nations like Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia (all shaded with left-slanting blue stripes). I’d already memorised the territorial trades and annexations: South Tyrol to Italy; Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium; Memelland to Lithuania. To me, sitting in that class earlier, at the front and itching to ask a question, the map described a charged, alluring continent. I wanted to be on the ground there, to witness and record. I wanted to belong in that Europe. I wanted to own it.
For a moment it didn’t look like the man with the white hair was going to give me back the map, so I wasn’t even going to own that. He held it up to me with his thumb over the top left-hand corner, somewhere East or West Prussia-ish.
‘There,’ he said. ‘That’s where I started.’”
The Syllabus of Errors: Twelve Stories of Obsession, Loss and Getting in a State, featuring I Remember Nothing, is available from Unthank Books, Amazon, all good booksellers and to download for your Kindle.