George sees the wet weight of the meat, wrapped in paper, clinging to the side of the shopping bag. His father asks him, Do you want Liver and Onions?
No, George says.
Have you eaten?
I just don’t want them.
They’re your favourite.
I don’t have any favourite. Favourites are for babies.
George is lying. Liver and onions are his favourite. More than that, liver and onions represent a pact between him and his father, a pact that goes back to before the divorce. His mother won’t eat offal. Nor will Eleanor. It is something only they share. How can you eat the inside of something? his mother says. An animal’s brains or its heart? It’s too cruel.
When George asks how killing an animal for its innards is worse than killing the same animal for its flesh, his mother pulls a face and stares into the distance. Later she stuffs a chicken, pulling away the skin and poking butter and garlic and herbs between the skin and the flesh. Eleanor is more consistent, at least – she finds the meat too soft.
But George likes the soft meat. He has never been happier than sitting down with his father at the kitchen table, his Dad keeping his newspaper in place with a coffee cup, the half-burnt onions and rye bread wet with dark juices.
He has turned his back on all that now.
The weekdays have been divided up. Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights are spent at his mother’s house, Tuesdays and Thursdays are given to his father. They alternate the weekends. It isn’t an efficient system, George often arrives in class without the necessary textbook, but he makes do. He gets used to the couple of nights each week spent on the sofa bed in his father’s living room, falling asleep with the television on, the TV scrambling up his dreams.
His mother’s house – the house he begins to consider his mother’s, rather than his, rather than theirs – is not what it was. She has been busy rearranging furniture, painting the walls, ripping up carpets. She returns to his father a set of chairs, then changes her mind and demands them back. When his father refuses, she enlists George to sneak them out of the flat down to where she waits in her car with the engine running, which he does.
At the centre of this toing and froing is his school. George begins to admire it for its concrete ugliness, its gates, its lowering, gloomy solidity.
He knows the names for all the shops that surround the blank building: 24- hour-Turk, Lone Star Chicken, Chuck-In Chicken, Fat Pasta, Linda’s Café, Sweaty Café, Rack-Rent Convenience Store. He passes them by after school when they are faded and shutting up. The shops depend on the schoolchildren for their business and appeal to them with brightly coloured chicken-wing and Panda-pop signs, signs cut into the same stars and crescent moons in green and blue that the children see stuck, in miniature, in their exercise books announcing Good Work and Excellent Effort. George obsesses over these cheapo stores that resent and pander to their customers; shops rammed for the first half-hour of one o’clock with crowds of kids hustling and haggling. George watches from behind the schoolyard bars at lunchtimes. Kids stuff crisps and chocolate bars into their pockets. They threaten shopkeepers and are threatened back – and both fear the other means it. They fight, laugh and shout, clog the streets; in the rain, crowds of ill-defined children huddle morosely under awnings.
Until Year 9, George is not allowed out of the school grounds. Instead of joining in with the commotion he has to tramp down to the over-lit Cafeteria and be served pizza warmed-up in a cardboard box.
On the first day he can, he wants to go from shop to shop. He will buy up as much of the stock as he can afford and sell it to Year 7s and 8s, like himself, who pine for all tokens of the world outside.
But there is plenty that could happen before he gets to Year 9. He could be hit by a car or stabbed in the street. He could humiliate himself and have no way out but suicide. He could die without ever having escaped the drab, walled world of his school. More and more, he fantasises about scaling the fence behind the assembly hall as some other boys do. If he came to some misfortune as he ventured out of the school grounds, at least no one could say he was chicken.
Finished with his stodgy pizza, George wanders back up to the emptied, mazy school corridors and slumps against a wall. His friends find him there. For the rest of lunchtime, George stands by as Yeu idly picks his nose, as Rex colours a fingernail black with an inky pen, licks his thumb, wipes it clean.
He should force his restlessness back down. He can drift away from these boys if he likes, but it is far from certain there will be anyone else to take him in.
His mother has a secret. George doesn’t know what it is yet, but he could probably guess. She carries it with her around the house, hums to herself while she chops vegetables. She spends her evenings doing A4-sized oil-crayon drawings that she hangs above her bed, pictures of two fish in a pond or a pair of monkeys climbing a tree. Always couples.
In Science they sit on stools at long tables of thick dark wood. The tables are scored with messages from previous years, from boys who have grown up and left the school and made something of themselves, or haven’t and have failed at life. George searches the messages for some sign of hope, for some scribbling that will let him know there a boy like himself who sat here, stuck it out, and pulled through.
He reads: Penny Jane + Sean McGee ’94 – Jack Davis’ mum sucks snakes – Reebok Workouts! – Mohammed has a Spam Head.
He reads: Clara gives good sex – Science is borein! – NW1 =NoWhitesa1lowed – 7up.
Eventually, he finds something that, however obliquely, he takes to be the sign he was looking for. It reads, as best he can make out: why was I born with a diff’rent face?
He chooses a seat next to this scrawl so he can look at it in every lesson. What happened to the boy who wrote that, he wonders, how did it turn out for him?
In the middle of the table, four gas taps make a cross. The taps are used during experiments, when they are connected via tubes to Bunsen burners. But Science no longer involves experiments with tubes and Bunsen burners; there have been too many incidents. Without experiments, Science is just a lot of diagrams. And even the teacher seems to have given up pretending anyone could be interested in a subject comprised only of diagrams.
At George’s table they finish copying out the latest from the board and lay down their pencils. My father is an engineer, Yeu says, apropos of nothing. What does your father do? It is a game they have played many times before. They know the rules.
My Dad is the first officer on a ship, says Bobby. Bobby has plenty of stories of his Dad and the sea, all of which they doubt and are tired of: the time he was caught in a typhoon, the time he saw pirates, his encounter with a giant squid. They are baby’s stories, George thinks, remembered from a book.
Rex says nothing. Rex doesn’t know his Dad.
My Dad’s a journalist, George says. It is another lie. His father has not had any real work for over a year. Ever since his father left the house George doesn’t actually know what he does, but he cannot imagine it is too different from what he did when they lived together: his father locked up in his office hour after hour, for days on end, letting his life pass him by.
The first time he was taken to his Dad’s new flat, he and Eleanor had waited for their father to pick them up while their mother took a bath. George sat on the steps outside the bathroom and called through the locked door: Why are you taking a bath now?
Are you going out?
I’m staying here. I don’t want to go.
He heard the water slosh about in the bathtub.
Let me in, he called. I won’t look. I’ll read to you.
What? his mother said. I couldn’t hear anything. My head was underwater. Let me in.
He heard the water again, then the door unlocked.
When George entered the bathroom, his mother was lowering herself back into the bathtub. Her bony elbows stuck into the air and he saw how the skin of her arms was a little loose and hung from her like a too big shirt. He averted his eyes, suddenly embarrassed to have pleaded his way inside.
I’m not going, he said.
George, his mother asked, do you think I’m fatter than I used to be? Do you think my stomach is saggy?
And she stood up out of the water, naked and wet, and had him look at her. George?
No, he said.
Not even my stomach?
No, he said. Not even that.
His father came and they left. The three of them drove over to the new top floor flat. Eleanor led the tour. She took him to the upstairs bedroom and said, This is my room. We’re going to paint it pink.
Good for you.
You’re not allowed in.
The flat was a mess. He was surprised his father had managed it in only a month. Towels and pants and socks lay about the floor. In the kitchen, three udder- like gauze sacks hung from the pipe at the bottom of the boiler. George looked more closely at these. Something sweet and sticky dripped from the wet pouches into three pans placed carefully underneath. His father was preparing a sort of spicy jam. George was surprised at the attentiveness. He walked back to the hallway and picked up a towel; it was clean and dry. It left a shadowy outline on the carpet underneath. He looked at the kitchen again, lost to its wreckage of plates and bottles, knifes and newspapers, loose change spilt on the floor or the kitchen table, coffee cups everywhere, stained saucepans and dried up takeaways. But then, above it all in the bare cupboard, George saw seven jam-jars, clean and lined up and waiting, labelled CHUTNEY .
Could his father not see the mess? Why did he not do anything about it? The only answer George could imagine was that he did not know how. His father must have at some stage learned to use the washing machine, but not to hang up wet laundry; he taught himself to cook chutney, but never to wash dishes. He follows his old routines and is then at a loss as to why the house is filthy. Why is this happening to me? George imagined his father asking himself: What has changed? He pictured him carrying a basket of wet clothes from the washing machine and, with no one to take it from him, simply flinging the soggy stuff in all directions. George took it as a lesson: this is what can happen to a person if they fall from your mother’s favour. This is what can happen to you.
There was something else he found in his father’s flat, too. Lying in the bathtub, next to the plughole, was a pair of dry, slightly starch-stiffened black-lace knickers. They weren’t Eleanor’s. George was unfortunately familiar with the orange or pink cotton y-front-like pants his sister wore. Instinctively, George brought the spindly thing to his nose and breathed in. They smelt of soap, he thought, but also of something else. They had a spice to them – unless that was the straining jam from downstairs. Clutching the knickers, George wandered around his father’s flat attempting to find some odourless corner where he could smell them for what they were. Eventually, he holed up in the broom cupboard under the stairs and tried again. The soap and spice were still there, though there was now a dusty, earthiness too. He held them over his mouth and lips like a gas mask and took breath after breath. His own curiosity mystified him. He did not know he had it in him.
So his father has a secret too.
In the dream he’s sitting in a circle. The others are kids from his school, maybe. He doesn’t recognise them. All of them eye each other, all afraid. One boy has betrayed the group. They’re here to find the traitor out.
The leader of the gang, who may or may not have organised the test, stays at the fringes of the room, of the dream. If George had to pin down who he was, he would say he was the bald guy who leads the contestants around in The Crystal Maze, the one who sometimes says nonsense things to camera, things like, Mumsy mumsy bony baby.
The preamble is over. Whatever they are here for is about to begin.
Three animals appear inside the circle, pacing anti-clockwise. They are, in order, a tiger, a baboon, and a chicken. George watches the tiger pass a boy opposite, he sees the boy look in horror at the fleshy pink of the baboon’s naked behind. After the chicken scuttles past, the boy is relieved: he has been found innocent. The animals approach George. First the Tiger. As it passes, George thinks that its skin hangs a little loose, its bones are too visible; it looks old, or wrong, as if a tiger’s pelt has been draped over another animal, a big dog maybe. The baboon passes, smiling with long teeth. Then the chicken. The grasp of his fear loosens. He relaxes his nervous fists – but too soon. The chicken spins around and pecks his slack index finger. George wants to cry out; in pain, but also to say he is innocent. I didn’t do it! he wants to cry. But from his mouth, instead of his voice, comes the voice of a chicken: Bacaw!
George’s life has not yet begun, not really. His school is the cause. It stunts him, deforms him, prevents him from becoming the person he will one day be. At the same time, he knows, his school is lax, escape is easy, groups of boys scale the poorly guarded gates every day. His secret is that he loves his school for its hefty, concrete comfort. Its thick walls cocoon him from the world outside.
Certain things belong to childhood, and others to the adult world. Sex, for instance, separates adults from children. It is the main secret adults have, and the grubby fact of it can derange them.
He remembers Eleanor arriving home in tears because a man, otherwise perfectly normal, had come to the park where she was playing and spied on the children. The man hid in the bushes and pulled his trousers down, played with himself. He was caught. A local bank-clerk – George’s mother said she recognised him from the tills. When George was told all this, he secretly felt sorry for the man. He certainly felt more sorry for him than for his sister who, confronted with a hopeless, suffering person with their trousers around their ankles, abusing themselves in broad daylight, could think of nothing better to do than scream and cry and make a scene out of it. He hoped that when it was his turn to endure whatever had driven that man to those bushes, he would manage to better hold himself together.
George is reluctant to have much to do with girls, particularly girls his age, but he isn’t stupid: getting a workable knowledge of sex is one of the tests he will have to pass before he can be released into his real life, which, he is sure, impatiently awaits him somewhere.
So sex belongs to adulthood while having favourites and playing games and an ignorant shamelessness about one’s own naked body belong to childhood. George is clear on this much. What he is not sure about, though, is the status of violence.
His parents are not violent with him. His father has hit him, sure, but that sort of violence, within the family, does not seem to George to be of the same order. His Dad was very sorry afterwards. The violence he means is violence that happens for no reason, or for only an arbitrary reason. A boy or group of boys approach another boy or group of boys and they punch and kick and gouge at each other until whichever party is still able to carry out the gouging and hitting decides, on a whim, to stop.
This random violence happens at his school every day. It will happen to him. His strategy for escaping has so far been to make himself into a sheep, to become so dreary and anonymous that some slightly goofier, less fearful boy gets his beating instead. But this cannot work forever. His luck will run out. He will be recognised as the one boy who is strange for never having submitted to the fists and feet of his schoolmates and they will turn on him. He will be exposed: not a sheep but a chicken.
His question is this: Does the violence stop at a certain age? Will he, when he is 17, when he is 25, when he is 36, when he is living his real life and has finally become the person he is meant to be, will he still be eyeing up every other person he comes across, assessing whether or not they are about to attack him? And if so, will he really ever be his true self? Can he imagine living with this constant threat and suspicion and not remain a boy who makes bargains with himself, pretending nothing will happen so that nothing will happen, a person lurking at the fringes of their own life, endlessly compromising, waiting for some phoney future when they can finally take up residence at the centre of things, afraid for it ever to be now?
He admires the black kids most of all: half-in half-out of school, half-wild. He doesn’t understand why they bother coming. Can’t they see how it turns out? If he were one of them he would turn his back on school life altogether and roam the streets, unbound.
Of the black teachers in his school, George can think of only one that retains any of that inborn, untamed freedom of his classmates. Mr. Mohammed takes Games and organises a poorly attended after-hours Rugby class. Mr Mohammed’s favourite sports are rugby and cricket, sports most of the boys in the school couldn’t care less about. Mr Mohammed always wears the same outfit, a cricket umpire’s costume: white jumpers, a wide-brimmed white hat, a white bum-bag. On the bum-bag and on the back of the jumpers he wears, he has had a slogan printed. It reads: Mohammed – a good name is better than gold.
Some of the older boys in the school know Mr Mohammed by another name. They call him Mr. Richards. George finds his picture in a school brochure in the library. It’s a couple of years out of date, but there he is: Cecil Richards. Next to the name is a black-and-white picture of the man’s impressive boulder of a head, his unsmiling face. George knows the picture from his homework diary, which also lists the teachers and their photos. He compares the two. Cecil Richards, Cecil Mohammed. George is surprised that of the two names, he kept Cecil.
George is told the reason for the change: Mr Mohammed is in the Nation of Islam. Richards was not his true name, it was a name imposed on his ancestors by their American and European slaveholding masters. Some members of the Nation forgo names altogether and simply assume the letter X. George imagines joining, becoming George X. Then he learns that white people are not allowed to join the Nation of Islam. White people’s names are their names, like it or not.
Two unknown boys lurk on the other side of the road one day after school. The first, of average height, wears a leather Avirex jacket. The other wears an army green t- shirt and has rangy, spider-like arms. They are not students of the school. The regular boys become excited by the presence of these others. They joke in front of them; they try to outdo each other with their jokes.
Kids linger outside the school watching, pretending not to watch. There is an anticipation of something. George feels it too. He cannot say exactly what they are waiting for – but when it comes, he sees. They were there for the violence, all willing it, whether they knew it or not.
The two barely look at anyone. They ignore the joking around them. In their slouching and far-off faces there is the careful indifference of people who know they are at the centre of attention.
Do they know what is being asked of them, George thinks, even if he doesn’t?
One of the younger boys is in George’s class. Dwaine; he sits within their clutch, grinning and whispering, pointing people out.
The boy in the olive t-shirt is particularly impressive. He is a giant. Thin but wiry, high cheek-boned, handsome. His arms are so long he seems never to straighten them. His elbows jut out. George looks at his long hands, their colour. His skin is darker than the others – he seems more detached, taller, superior to the rest – but his palms are fleshy red. They are huge hands. If I was him, George thinks, I would be free of everything, all the waiting would be over.
An adult, an angry-looking guy – the chippy, irritated type that would have a go at you for beating their kid at Monopoly, then tell off their son for not standing up for himself – comes out from the flats and walks towards the group. It is four in the afternoon and the man looks a little out of it. Bleary eyed. Just woken up, maybe, or else drunk. He stoops down on his way towards them near a cement mixer. As he approaches, George sees his faded t-shirt. It reads: Atlanta Space Shuttle ’96. He doesn’t look like he has thought much further than whatever he’s about to do next.
Some people call out as the man approaches, to alert the group, or out of excitement. George hears someone nearby say, without emotion, and to no one in particular – It’s starting.
The man begins to shout, to everyone and no one. He steps shouting into the street. The children back away from him.
You think this is a fucking jungle! You think you can do whatever the fuck you like. You’re a lot of dirty animals!
The children retreat, all except the unknown boys and their huddle. Soon the man is standing in the centre of a crowd, sharing the stage with the newcomers and their hangers-on. George looks around at the crowd, at all the watching eyes. Eyes look out from the pavement and spill out into the road. They look on from walls and windows. They stream out the school gates and join the crowd. Eyes and eyes and eyes.
The fuck are you looking at? Dwaine asks the man.
Only then does George notice that the giant is gone. George scans the crowd, but he’s nowhere.
The man turns, as if to leave. His arm extends behind him. George sees what’s in his hand. Others must only notice it then too, because a shout goes up – Brick!
George shouts something different, it comes from him unbidden – Don’t hurt them! he shouts, his voice desperate and wild.
The brick cracks against the asphalt and skids in two pieces to the gutter. Not even close.
They’re on him instantly: the little ones first, Dwaine too. They run to him and slap. They slap his neck and stomach; they slap anywhere. The man turns to fend them off, and on the turn, the boy in the Avirex jacket catches him with a fist. There is a crack like a well-hit run in rounders.
Oooo, the crowd say, approvingly.
He gets up again, the man. He swings at the smaller boys and they back away. He faces the boy in the jacket. Just out of each other’s range, they both duck about, trying to find an opportunity to hit. That is when George sees the giant coming out of the crowd, from behind the man.
It should have ended after that. The man came and lost, was humiliated – why not allow him to scuttle away, disgraced? On the other hand, it must be hard not to get carried away. Even with the giant, these are still boys, not so much older than George. How must it feel to do that to an adult, to half-kill him? What a power that is.
The part George finds it difficult to forget happens after the man is knocked down for the sixth or seventh time. The giant lopes away while the other boy rummages the man’s pockets. A phone is taken, a wallet. The man rolls from his back onto his belly, blood streams from his nose – what is red on his face only wets and glistens the dark asphalt. He pushes up against the floor, like a granddad doing press- ups.
He’s trying to get up again, says the boy as he empties the wallet and drops it into the puddle of blood.
It is two strides across for the giant. The man’s straining arms keep his head propped up. Then the kick – and the children scatter. The sight of it alone is enough to make them all run. George runs with the crowd, then keeps running, alone. He only stops on the road of his father’s flat. He sits on the low wall in front of the bay windows of some roomy Victorian house and replays the scene in his mind. The tall black boy with his leg aloft, the desperate figure crumbled in the road, the excitement he had felt.
George has a key. It is his mother’s weekend, but without thinking, his legs have taken him here. He opens the door to the flat and sees that the window to his father’s roof garden – some lanky potted plants on the water stained asphalt roof of the flat below, nothing more – is open. Two fold up canvas chairs have been placed outside. From inside the house, he smells cooked onions, a little charred. Following some instinct, he eases he door shut. He doesn’t announce himself. He treads softly up to the landing, to the glass panelled kitchen door.
A woman sits at the kitchen table, eating. Between mouthfuls, she hums to herself and flexes her toes. She is bare-footed. All she would need to do is turn her head and she would see him. George stands so close to the door that his breath could fog the glass. He watches her chew, find the salt on the kitchen table (the kitchen is tidy, the whole flat is tidier), take a pinch and crumble it over her plate. She doesn’t see him, or sense him. It’s like she isn’t really there; or he’s not. He gets the feeling that if he opened the door and looked directly at her, she could vanish. He looks at her plate: onions and liver. His father is not around.
George escapes upstairs unseen and waits in his sister’s bedroom. The walls are deep pink, like the inside of something. Before long his father arrives home. He hears them talk. The girl leaves. George doesn’t attempt to hear their conversation. He only hears one thing of what his father tells her. His father, in a stuttering sort of way, says that he’s given her a little extra.
George remains in the lip-coloured room even after she’s gone. He doesn’t want to be found there. He hears his Dad potter around, go to the toilet, piss with the door open, not wash his hands; later, he hears him leave.
He arrives back at his mother’s house before suppertime. Out causing trouble? his mother says when she sees him.
I went to Dad’s, George says.
I’m making lamb stew, his mother tells him. It’s your favourite.
He spots the man a week later, at breaktime, walking past the school carrying a couple of pints of milk in a plastic bag. The children who aren’t allowed out line the iron gates to stare. Half his face looks like broken eggs; two eggshell-lumps press shut his right eye. His top lip is lifted swollen pathetically above his teeth, stuck in a feeble smile. He wobbles as he walks. A grown man.