Sunday evening. The study hour.
There was a pinewood desk and a plastic swivel chair and a leno curtain over an
aluminium casement window. High on a short wall an electric radiator glowed a
lurid Martian red. And on a long wall standard-issue texts sat askew on a shelf
that wobbled in its anodised brackets. On the door was affixed a giant poster.
Before me, atop the pine,
and obscuring some small portion of the various initials and insults and
amateurish depictions of human genitalia that were there inscribed, was a
russety calculus primer and a single piece of feint-ruled foolscap. Line after
line of defective algebraic contortions scratched the page black. It was a
primitive function. A hideous beast involving inverse trigonometric polynomials
and second-order logarithms. There was no denying the punitive aspect. And the
more attempts I made at the thing, the more preposterous my answers became.
I flipped to a fresh
page. In short arcs I twisted back and forth on the swivel chair, as with
incisors I gnawed on the butt of a pen. A lick of cold seeped in from behind the
leno. The radiator creaked and incinerated the motey air. A stale biscuity smell
drifted down. I stared at the beast and swore that only one of us was going to
get out of there alive.
It was at this point, I
believe, that Harrison stormed in.
teal eyes, chin like a spear-tip. The kid was one of my subordinates. A fellow
of one of those intermediate years. Fourteen? Fifteen? I can’t recall which.
I offered a standard
welcome and without taking the pen from my mouth asked him what he knew about
There were several
squeaks. The memory is clear; hurried anxious steps on the waxy hardwood caused
the sneakers to squeak. Once, twice, three times; a timid rubbery ‘Eek’.
A shaky hand pulled the
zip higher on the civvy jacket. Then a skittish tug on the collar, a quick
tamping down of the perfect hair and a glance at the wristwatch.
‘Nothing?’ I said,
chewing on the pen. He knew nothing about line integrals?
The trembling hands were
shoved into tan corduroy pockets. A sneaker squeaked again and a look of
incredulity flashed across the glabrous face. He muttered something to do with
somebody’s or something’s being a total waste of human effort. Then, more
clearly, he said he was done. He said he wasn’t bullshitting me. He said he knew
he didn’t have to tell me why.
With the chewing came
suddenly the taste of ink. Bitter and cyanic, like citrus seed. I tossed the pen
onto the desk and spat desperately into a woollen sleeve.
I eyed the kid across a
navy arm and said I was sure I didn’t know what he was getting at. The tongue
worked in stabbing circles inside the mouth, gathered more of the foul spittle,
and deposited it on the sleeve.
‘I’m fucking well
leaving,’ he said. In the study room next door a fellow was talking. An
inflected tone of boyish surprise. Harrison lowered his voice. ‘Tonight,’ he
said. ‘This very minute. The whole lot can fuck themselves. Every last psychotic
From the radiator came a
brittle creak. And in the men’s room down the hallway somebody flushed a toilet.
The last of the ink taste
ended up in a couple of globs on the hardwood. A dry strip of sleeve was
employed to wipe the lips. I made a noise of relief and told him to be sure to
write. Though I’d see him in a day or two. Once his Ma and Pa had found him
hiding under his bed and cursed and spanked him and dragged his teary ass back
to the hellhole in which they all seemed to think we belonged.
The hands came out of the
pockets now and went to work on one another, picking fiercely at the cuticles.
‘You’re it,’ he said. He
shook the spotless head. ‘Nobody has been told a thing. There’s a place or a
person I know, but apart from that I have no real plan. Aside from keeping out
of this miserable asylum. I know you understand why, but no living force can
drag me back.’ There was a wince, and a tiny ribbon of skin got flicked onto the
I raised and then lowered
an eyebrow. ‘I’m it?’
He pointed at my shirt.
‘Because of your badges.’
‘Ah.’ I brought a hand up
to a lapel and absently patted one of the things to which he was referring. ‘To
whom you would tell nothing.’ I lowered the hand and spoke slowly. ‘And so who
must know …?’
‘Less than nought.’
There was laughter from
next door now. I said again that I’d see him soon, sulking in the back seat of
his ma’s limited edition whatever it was, and that I looked forward to hearing
all about his boys’ own adventure holiday. On Tuesday or Wednesday.
The sneakers squeaked
again as he came in closer. Leaning down, he whispered in my ear. ‘Not. In.
This. Fucking. Life.’
A tickle of cold rippled
over the narrow band of flesh between pullover collar and cropped hair. Harrison
stood in the middle of the little room and ripped off more cuticle.
Just like that clown,
Limburger, I thought. Gone Sunday, re-incarcerated by Thursday. Made the
poor kid’s life a misery. All the critical attention. Couldn’t even get failure
right. His old man had left bruises around his neck. And then back here
the usual pressures were applied to the usual sensitive spots. The boy used to
wake up in the middle of the night screaming for Mother, and then when he
realised where he was he screamed again. Institutionalisation: not what a social
Harrison checked his
wristwatch and made a face of pain and said he really had to go.
The fellow next door
I told him I looked
forward to getting his postcard, and then let my gaze wander. Curtain, shelf,
radiator, poster. It was Malcolm X. He took up almost the entire door. Damn
thing needed straightening too. The problem was interminable. A slippage of age.
The glossy sheet’s upper half was forever buckling and creeping wonkily down the
door, as little by little the wads of sticky putty lost their moisture and
‘Clear?’ Harrison said,
in relation to I cannot remember what.
I thought. The room’s
previous occupant had inherited X, as had the occupant before him. But that was
as far back as I knew it went. This gave X at least four years on the back of
the door. I couldn’t decide if this meant he was old or still pretty young.
Harrison said it again.
I held up a hand to give
the impression that I had to think. The previous occupant had, like me, been an
office bearer. He too wore faux-silver crests on his shirt lapels, and had
authority to order fellows around, and to punish the disobedient. When he left,
he placed the poster rolled up and standing in a corner alongside a similarly
rolled-up poster of some grand many-turreted Bavarian schloss. I had some basic
notion of who Malcolm X was and what he stood for. But the specifics of the
schloss in Bavaria escaped me. It was enough to know that it stood for
inbreeding and daffy nostalgia. And so X went up on the door, and the schloss
got tossed in the garbage.
There was another squeak
as again the kid came in close. ‘Now,’ he said. ‘Here.’
A hand had reached into a
trouser pocket and pulled from it a slip of paper. ‘Here,’ he said again,
shoving the slip at me. I took it in two fingers and placed it on the desk,
alongside the primer. Upon it, in a fine blue hand, was written a telephone
He turned to go. He told
me to call him. Saturday. Late. He said he wanted to know what they were all
doing; the Administrator and the Head and whoever. He said it wouldn’t change
anything. He just wanted to check in, maybe save people from worry. To let them
know he was still breathing. He said I could tell them it was he who had called
me. He said that this meant I could do nothing and still appear to be the
responsible big guy. ‘What do you say?’
I had of course
contemplated throwing out X too. Many times. In addition to its crumbly slippage
down the door, it was also irreparably ripply-looking from having been tightly
rolled. And then there were the greasy coin-shaped spots in the corners and at
the equatorial margins, where the putty was stuck.
Harrison was at the door.
‘Clear?’ he said again, over a shoulder.
I lowered the raised
hand. If I got rid of X, I’d still be left with the problem of having to replace
him. I scoffed. X was black, and poor, and a school dropout, and dead. And so,
among the young white well-to-do males of the institution he had real cachet. I
could, I supposed, get hold of Luther King. He too was dead. But then he was a
pastor, and a Nobel laureate, and known for his advocacy of non-violence, and
somehow more mainstream than X. And frankly, around the institution, he
‘Call me late,’ he said
again. ‘After midnight. When the animals are asleep.’
I think I nodded. I might
Harrison pulled on the
door. He looked back and told me again that the entire sick lot could fuck
I probably nodded again.
Squeaky steps receded
quickly down the hallway, a door slammed, and the regular Sunday evening hush
fell like so much distant air. Next door, the fellow was singing. Overhead, the
radiator made its tinny noise.
I stared at X, who stared
out at a wall. The gaze was thoughtful and kind. The tip of a forefinger nestled
alongside an eye of the long handsome face. God only knows what he was thinking.
I took a new pen from a
drawer and resumed work on the beast in the primer. So it was, I decided again,
twisting back and forth on my seat: one of us was going to die.