Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Chameleon (part one)

When Rachel opened the door to Jerry he knew at once that something was wrong. The quick, tight smile, gone as if it had never been there, the fine crease between her brows, the way she toyed with the nail of her index finger against the pad of her thumb, were all unmistakeable signs of unease, and he felt dismay rise listlessly in him like an arthritic dog dragging itself to its feet on command.
He locked the door of the Honda and swung his coat over one shoulder and walked to her, his face set in the expression of concern-tinged cheerfulness he had mastered long ago. He received and returned the kiss and followed her into the house, hanging the jacket on its peg and walking after her into the kitchen, where he perched on one of the two wooden stools at the small breakfast table and watched her at the stove.
Yes, not bad, the day.
Yes, the staff meeting had gone okay, a few protests about the forthcoming inspection but nothing major.
No, it had been the fifth-formers for two periods today, the sixth form was Wednesday.
How had her day been?
And on it went, he with his cup of tea, she half-turned towards him at the cooker, the saucepans simmering quietly and an undefinable aroma in the air.
Through the dinner of lasagna and salad, which he liked and told her he liked, he began to breathe more easily, letting the concern fade slowly from his eyes and his mouth; perhaps it wasn’t necessary. Television tonight, then, probably, the drama series they both enjoyed, and half an hour catching up with his e-mail, and then perhaps, at bed-time, a casual word, affectionately and humorously put, to the effect that she had seemed upset when he had come home and he was glad she was all right.
‘Samantha’s pregnant.’
He had been about to say something, the silence shading into discomfort, and he felt relief that she had spoken and then confusion at what she had said, at how he was supposed to react. She wasn’t looking at him and he had time to rummage through his closet of expressions and throw one on: the raised-eyebrow grin.
‘Really? That’s great.’ He gave it two seconds and followed up with, ‘When did she find out?’
She raised her head and he searched her eyes secretly. He couldn’t process what he saw there quickly enough so he said, boldly, ‘When’s she due?’
‘June, probably.’ She looked down at her plate. It was too much for him and he smiled and said, ‘Hm,’ and went on eating, wanting to flee, to bare his face to the cold dark autumn and run until the pain sawed his chest ragged.
Except that he didn’t. He wanted to be with Rachel, to comfort her, to make it right and to make her happy. Because he loved her.

He stood at the kitchen window, mug in hand, staring at the neat scrap of lawn with its spill of leaves at the border, at the stack of wooden boards and tiles that leant against the shed, raw materials for the kennel that had never been, for the dog that, he agreed with her, they could not afford. They had passed the evening as planned, side by side on the sofa, enjoying the drama on the television, except he had felt he was enjoying it more than she was; afterwards he had sat at his computer and read his mail and sent replies, while the sounds in the other room suggested she was on the telephone and he strained his ears desperately.
He made up his mind, and closed his eyes for a moment, and then went back into the living room where she was on the settee again, legs curled up under her. He sat beside her and smiled softly and said, ‘I’ve been thinking about it. For a while now, actually. Let’s have a baby.’

The room was white, a brilliant newly-washed white that extended into the farthest recesses where wall met ceiling. The man had covered every inch, moving his gaze as slowly as he could, seeking a sign that the purity of the wall and ceiling and floor was sullied, and failing. He had rubbed at the wall against which he sat with his head and the backs of his hands, and craned his head round to peer painfully at the wall out of the corner of his eye, searching for a smudge, an acknowledgement from the cold stone surface that he had marked it, that he existed, but the blankness remained.
The room was a cube, ten feet to a side, with a white door directly opposite him through which people came. He could see no handle on the door but the people who came always seemed to find one to let themselves out. He did not know how he could estimate the size of the room, or how he knew what a door was; no-one had ever taught him such things. He had been in the room as long as he could remember, and that was as far back as his infancy. In his childhood, he had run free in the room, and it had been larger then, much larger; it was not, he knew, merely his changed perspective as an adult that made it appear that the room had shrunk.

The man sat with his back pressed against the hardness of the wall and his knees drawn up before him. His knees were bony, and he knew the people would soon come in and change his colourless clothes for a set of a smaller size, the changing garb keeping pace with the shrivelling of his physique. His arms were stretched above him and away from him in a flattened Y shape, and they remained this way except when the people came to change his clothes, when he shook them and rubbed them and ignored the shouted orders to keep still until the manacles at the ends of the chains bolted into the wall were snapped into place around his wrists once more.
He could not remember when the chains had first been used to hold him. As a boy, he had been vaguely aware of their presence, two unobtrusive and therefore uninteresting features on the wall; but the wall, and the rest of the room, had not been as blank then, and he was unsure whether he imagined that it had been altogether a different colour, perhaps multicoloured, with vivid pictures the details of which eluded him now. It was as though he had been drugged for days, years even, so that his life had washed about him in a dimly-perceived and timeless sea until he had risen to full consciousness and found himself a prisoner, diminished and betrayed.
Yet he had not turned in on himself, displaying his throat for the people to cut. He pulled at the chains until his wrists were scraped raw; he yelled and cursed and spat in the faces of the people when they came in with food or clothing; he wrenched his failing body towards the half-open door whenever it opened, and earned abuse and slaps and blows sometimes. He did not know what lay beyond the door, although he had glimpsed things through it as a child that he had not understood but which had reassured him. As a man, he no longer derived any comfort from the thought of what was outside, and he knew therefore he must discover it.

At the first note of the bell the banks of protocol gave way to a shouting torrent of teenagers and Jerry went through the motions of dismissing the class, his voice louder than usual but unheeded. The last person to leave, a sullen owl-eyed girl called Zoe, passed his desk and he beamed at her; she stared back blankly and he moved a pile of exercise books from one side of his desk to another. The last double-period of the week, and he really felt he was getting somewhere with them, infecting them with his enthusiasm for the Tudors.
He had a free period and found Halford, the vice-principal, in the staff room. Jerry poured coffee and frowned, ‘They’re not as bad as I was told, actually. Form Six.’
Halford bobbed his eyebrows. ‘Then you’ve more patience than I have. I’d have achieved more talking to my reflection for forty minutes yesterday than standing up in front of that lot.’
Jerry laughed. ‘Thing is, I really want to make a difference, it’s why I went into teaching in the first place. If I can get just one of them interested, it’ll be worth it.’
‘Two or three of them need a good whack, that’d get them all interested,’ said Halford through cigarette smoke.
Jerry felt a tweak of annoyance. ‘Yep, can’t argue there,’ he grinned. Halford had been teaching fifteen years, knew what he was talking about.
Halford had his head in a newspaper and Jerry took out his diary for something to do and began paging. Rachel’s parents were coming up for the weekend, which he didn’t mind even though he had been planning to get his new website sorted out. There was always –
He had turned the page by the time he registered the words and he flipped back.
Help me.
The letters were large, in bold black ink, in the centre of the page. He had not written them. He was sure of it.
Rachel? One of his pupils?
Help me.
He riffled through the book but glimpsed nothing similar. He looked up but Halford was hidden behind his paper and seemed to have noticed nothing.
He was frightened.

The beatings were harder this time and the man shrank into himself as far as his manacled, exposed position allowed. There were kicks to his stomach, slaps to his cheeks, cuffs to his head, and he clenched his eyes and his jaws and endured. He endured because for the first time in as long as he could remember, his hope was real, not an abstract, free-floating concept but one rooted in the world. He had seen, in the broadest and most metaphorical sense of the word, another, who could help him, and he had communicated his desire for help in a manner which he did not begin to understand, but which had been effective. He did not know how the people who were beating him knew of this contact, and he did not care. What mattered to him was that he had achieved, that his actions had had an influence, and the knowledge was a spur to his rage and his joy. The blows came faster, and his tormentors screamed spittle at him, and he began to laugh, to himself at first, and then at them, in their faces, and although this drove their fury to heights and depths he had not experienced before, the resulting pain insulated him from fear and despair, the irony of which made him scorn them all the more.
Later, when they had gone in a throng of muttered contempt and revulsion, he slumped bloodied and exhausted against the wall, his eyes swollen almost shut and his mouth numb; but he did not sleep, even though his body screamed at him for the release of unconsciousness. The giddying sensation of his contact with the other was fresh in him, and he extended his awareness outwards instead of towards his core and let himself drift and probe

‘Rachel tells us you’re into computers.’
Jerry topped up Dorothy’s wineglass. She was his mother-in-law, an austere sixty with arched artificial eyebrows and eyes that gleamed bitterness and disappointment. That wasn’t fair, really; she was Rachel’s mother, and he did feel affection for her.
‘Yes, I dabble a bit.’
‘Waste of time, if you ask me.’ George, Rachel’s father, had lit one of his cigars that smelled like an overripe sewer and spread a mattress of blue smoke over the table. ‘Managed for centuries without them, why the sudden urge to put everything at the mercy of machines?’
Jerry chuckled. ‘You’re probably right.’ He fought down the impulse to cough, annoyed with himself. The smoke didn’t matter. ‘The Internet’s quite interesting, though. The possibilities for education are incredible.’
He caught Rachel’s reproving look and the casual, polite blankness in George’s eyes and shut up. If they weren’t interested, he had no right to impose on them.
After dinner he ran water in the sink but agreed with Rachel when she came into the kitchen that he should leave it to her and her mother, and joined George in the living room for a whisky. The older man argued the case for the new Mercedes over its BMW rival and Jerry contributed murmurs and short nasal exhalations of mirth while his thoughts ranged across the vistas of electronic space as they did until the early hours each morning, the exhilaration of unimagined possibilities spilling over into his dreams and shaping them so that he woke with an almost unbearable sense of purpose, that forced him to get up an hour before Rachel and caress the keyboard of his desktop like a master pianist.
‘Relegation for sure, unless they get their act together.’
At some point his father-in-law had turned the television on to a football match which Jerry knew was of crucial significance, and he sipped his drink and commented recklessly that the referee didn’t know what he was doing. From George’s backslapping tone he knew he had said the right thing, that the decision had favoured the wrong side, and he did not understand why his relief felt odd, unclean even.
He wondered why George had changed channels. The picture was of an empty room, with white walls and ceiling and floor, mildly interesting in its featurelessness. The camera was almost at floor level and swung this way and that, obviously the hand-held trick that had gone beyond a cliché long ago. Every now and again a pair of knees appeared at the bottom of the screen.
Help me… you must help me…
Jerry pulled himself upright in his chair and glanced sideways at the older man, who was biting his lower lip and muttering, ‘Come on, come on, pass it,’ before he slumped back in a snarl of clenched fists and mouthed oaths. Jerry looked back at the screen. All he saw was the room from the same ceaselessly moving perspective, and the voice came again, as if not from the television’s speakers but from the space between him and the screen.
You can help me.
I don’t have much longer.
Then the women came in with coffee and laughter and he joined in and when he peered at the screen again, the vividness of the red and blue men on the green of the field jabbed his eyes.

Gee, foot, it's really long.
Thanks, Justin, I get that a lot.
Well I was going to say it's just too long for me to swallow the whole thing tonight, but now I'm not so sure people mightn't misconstrue my meaning.

In the morning Footie, in the morning.
Footsie, absoutely awesome - prickles up the spine - loved it.
I shall read it tonight or at lunch.
From my phone. Just to be a bastard.
That was beautifully written, Foots. Aquiescence is death by a thousand cuts and you take it further by suggesting that, with every point not fought for, the soul is squeezed; the groove of self-loathing gets deeper with habit, and less easy to climb out of. You set out our own personal captors - Messrs. Don't Rock The Boat, Always Oblige, Excuse Others' Behaviour and Ignore Nagging Disappointment - for us to examine in harsh white light, point by point and captor by captor but with all the real import of their effects felt corporally and winceingly.

The second time I read it I thought the fact that you managed to do all that and keep it so short was the coolest part, especially since you were ragged by Justin and me for it's length.

I like the menacing Them and the heroic Us thing you've got going on in your stories. It satisfies the justice gland but not with a cudgel and the hero is a hero in the proper, not accidental sense. Bold personal action is taken.

I feel like going off and doing something heroic after reading that, but unfortunately all I have is making spaghetti for the Problem Children. But tonight I won't take no for an answer, dammit! I will NOT sigh and say, well if you eat half I'll give you some toast. No! It's time to stand up to my 3-foot captors and let them know that there's no more Mrs. Nice ProblemChildBride. I have seen the future and there are clean plates in it. Grrr! Lemme at'em.
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