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Black Swan Green: A Novelby David Mitchell
Do not set foot in my office. That's Dad's rule. But the phone'd rung twenty-five times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it's a matter of life or death. Don't they? Dad's got an answering machine like James Garner's in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he's stopped leaving it switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn't hear it up in her converted attic 'cause "Don't You Want Me?" by Human League was thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn't hear 'cause the washing machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty rings. That's just not normal. S'pose Dad'd been mangled by a juggernaut on the M5 and the police only had this office number 'cause all his other I.D.'d got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in the terminal ward.
So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeard's chamber after being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dad's office smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. There's a serious clock on the wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school. There's a photo of Dad shaking hands with Craig Salt when Dad got made regional sales director for Greenland. (Greenland the supermarket chain, not Greenland the country.) Dad's IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phone's red like a nuclear hotline and it's got buttons you push, not the dial you get on normal phones. So anyway, I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said our number. I can say that without stammering, at least. Usually.
But the person on the other end didn't answer. "Hello?" I said. "Hello?"
They breathed in like they'd cut themselves on paper.
"Can you hear me? I can't hear you."
Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.
"If you can hear me"-I remembered a Children's Film Foundation film where this happened-"tap the phone, once."
There was no tap, just more Sesame Street.
"You might have the wrong number," I said, wondering.
A baby began wailing and the receiver was slammed down.
When people listen they make a listening noise.
I'd heard it, so they'd heard me.
"May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief." Miss Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. 'Cause I'd sort of had a reason to have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dad's razor-sharp blind, over the glebe, past the cockerel tree, over more fields, up to the Malvern Hills. Pale morning, icy sky, frosted crusts on the hills, but no sign of sticking snow, worse luck. Dad's swivelly chair's a lot like the Millennium Falcon's laser tower. I blasted away at the skyful of Russian MiGs streaming over the Malverns. Soon tens of thousands of people between here and Cardiff owed me their lives. The glebe was littered with mangled fusilages and blackened wings. I'd shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as they pressed their ejector seats. Our marines'll mop them up. I'd refuse all medals. "Thanks, but no thanks," I'd tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan when Mum invited them in, "I was just doing my job."
Dad's got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencils're sharpest, they're Dad's faves. I prefer 2Bs.
The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked I'd left no other traces of my incursion, slipped out, and flew downstairs to see who it was. The last six steps I took in one death-defying bound.
Moron, grinny-zitty as ever. His bumfluff's getting thicker, mind. "You'll never guess what!"
"You know the lake in the woods?"
"What about it?"
"It's only"-Moron checked that we weren't being overheard-"gone and froze solid! Half the kids in the village're there, right now. Ace doss or what?" "Jason!" Mum appeared from the kitchen. "You're letting the cold in! Either invite Dean inside-hello Dean-or shut the door."
"Um . . . just going out for a bit, Mum."
"Um . . . where?"
"Just for some healthy fresh air."
That was a strategic mistake. "What are you up to?"
I wanted to say "Nothing" but Hangman decided not to let me. "Why would I be up to anything?" I avoided her stare as I put on my navy duffel coat.
"What's your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?"
I still couldn't say "Nothing." (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as a hard-knock. Adults can't be expected to understand.) "My duffel's a bit warmer, that's all. It's parky out."
"Lunch is one o'clock sharp." Mum went back to changing the Hoover bag. "Dad's coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your head'll freeze." Woolly hats're gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.
"Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor," said Moron.
"Good-bye, Dean," said Mum.
Mum's never liked Moron.
Moron's my height and he's okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage that pongs of gravy too. His real name's Dean Moran (rhymes with "warren") but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him "Moron" in our first week and it's stuck. I call him "Dean" if we're on our own but name's aren't just names. Kids who're really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew's always just "Nick." Kids who're a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have sort of respectful nicknames like "Yardy." Next down are kids like me who call each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, who's Knickerless Bra. It's all ranks, being a boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just "Swinyard," he'd kick my face in. Or if I called Moron "Dean" in front of everyone, it'd damage my own standing. So you've got to watch out.
Girls don't do this so much, 'cept for Dawn Madden, who's a boy gone wrong in some experiment. Girls don't scrap so much as boys either. (That said, just before school broke up for Christmas, Dawn Madden and Andrea Bozard started yelling "Bitch!" and "Slag!" in the bus queues after school. Punching tits and pulling hair and everything, they were.) Wish I'd been born a girl, sometimes. They're generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that out loud I'd get bumhole plummer scrawled on my locker. That happened to Floyd Chaceley for admitting he liked Johann Sebastian Bach. Mind you, if they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in Black Swan Green Parish Magazine, was me, they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.
So anyway, as Moron and I walked to the lake he told me about the Scalectrix he'd got for Christmas. On Boxing Day its transformer blew up and nearly wiped out his entire family. "Yeah, sure," I said. But Moron swore it on his nan's grave. So I told him he should write to That's Life on BBC and get Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron thought that might be difficult 'cause his dad'd bought it off a Brummie at Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didn't dare ask what a "Brummie" was in case it's the same as "bummer" or "bumboy," which means homo. "Yeah," I said, "see what you mean." Moron asked me what I'd got for Christmas. I'd actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but books're gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which I'd got from Uncle Brian and Aunt Alice. It's a board game you win by getting your little car to the end of the road of life first, and with the most money. We crossed the crossroads by the Black Swan and went into the woods. Wished I'd rubbed ointment into my lips 'cause they get chapped when it's this cold. Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. "Last one to the lake's a spaz!" yelled Moron, haring off before I was ready. Straight off he tripped over a frozen tire rut, went flying, and landed on his arse. Trust Moran. "I think I might've got a concussion," he said.
"Concussion's if you hit your head. Unless your brain's up your arse." What a line. Pity nobody who matters was around to hear it.
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