6. Prize conker. The son of a Norwegian ferry captain. The Escape Plan.
It happens on a Thursday, not that the name of days have any particular meaning any more, the town of O____ having been set adrift from any records that would make the recording of time a task worth persevering in, when quite uncharacteristically, it not being morning break, lunchtime, or afternoon break, these being the allotted times for ambulation, Antonio stands from his desk and comes over to Kuper’s where he kneels down.
“What do you say? We can’t go on like this. I’m at the end of my tether. I’m a man after all.”
Kuper looks up at his colleague, once again, as he is every time he is in such close proximity, overcome by the sheer size and smell of him, Gauloises predominantly, Antonio almost chain-smoking these days, having done an especially complex video postcard for Mehmet Ali, the Turkish tobacconist, in return for six hundred of his favoured fire sticks and six Bic lighters with crude images on them; disembodied breasts, rogered bums, flaming cunts.
“In fact, it was you yourself who put the idea in my mind with the story of the Bastille. I’ve been thinking about it on and on.”
Kuper scratches his head.
What story did he tell of the Bastille?
He can’t for the bones of him remember but there is already a feeling of dread rising up, like Moby Dick breaching the surface, in his stomach.
“Those prisoners, you see, they escaped…”
“The Bastille was stormed.”
Kuper picks up his pen and uses it to point in the air, reinforcing his meaning.
“You can not be said to have ‘escaped’ if you were freed by an outside agency. It is not the same thing at all.”
Sliding on his Aviator’s Antonio, leaning in closer, carries on, speaking in a whisper.
“Tomorrow night, at the darkest hour, when witches fly, I'm out of here. Do you get me? I’m cutting loose. I’m making off. God almighty I feel like, pow!, kicking out the door glass. It drives me mad to be stuck here. I’m going crazy!”
Shuffling in his pocket he pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper and, the crease of a suppressed smile just visible on either side of his sunglasses, he thrusts it towards Kuper before pulling it back, pocketing it again.
“This is the plan. If I don't kill myself in the attempt I’ll be back in the loving arms of Claudette de la Rivière by daybreak. To see her naked again, swaying her hips as she rehearses, a Jacques Brel LP playing on the phonograph in the background, is the only thing that has kept me going. And it is you that I must thank for giving me the thrust up the bum I needed. You’re an inspiration!”
“You should never listen to me,” says Kuper.
His throat is so constricted he can barely talk. A great vast hole has opened at his feet into which he pours forth nonsense from his mouth.
“Do you remember little Elias from school? The cripple? What was it? How he used to take an extra large condom into the games cupboard whenever he needed to pee. You’re at your most vulnerable when you’re having a piss. But Gulbis and his crew got him in the end anyway. Out on the rugby pitch. They removed all his clothes with Gulbis’s dad’s Stanley knife and Elias had to sit for the whole length of Blind Berzina’s double geography lesson in the nude, his tormentors taking it in turns to whisper rude stories in his ears, trying to make his dinkie grow big so they could take a photograph of it and post it on the lampposts around the town.
“That was the point,” said Kuper, “if Elias hadn’t rocked the boat in the first place, smashing Gulbis’s prize conker in front of all the others, then none of it would have happened.”
Kuper puts his hands flat on the table to stop himself from reaching out and grabbing Antonio.
“And what happened to little Elias afterwards? He jumped from the top of the Richard the Lionheart Ferris wheel at Medieval World of Adventures just two weeks later. Sometimes it is better to live in the status quo. Don’t rock the boat.”
Antonio raises himself back up, fishes another cigarette out of his packet and lights it. For once he speaks impatiently.
“If we all lived in the status quo then nothing remarkable would ever be achieved. Life can’t always be lived down among the dust mites.” Then he says cruelly, “Or the cretins.”
Going into the kitchen Kuper leans against the counter and looks up the stairs to his quarters and pounds both fists against his chest. "Please," he mouths silently and then he mouths it again, this single invocation, "please."
Checking the curtain is fully closed, no chinks through which an eager eye might find the truth, quickly Kuper removes all his clothes. There is a little mirror on a hook. He reaches up for it and holding it at arm’s length he examines his body. Arms and legs all intact. The belly a little protruding. Across his chest, a smattering of spots. Now, is he going bald? There are potions at the chemist. Rub them in and after two weeks, hey presto!, the women will come running.
Women have never been interested in him nor he them. Such a messy business. But Antonio. If he wanted Antonio could probably lift him up with one arm, toss him quite a distance.
And it is that power…
There was once another boy at school, Sven, son of a Norwegian ferry captain. He was a giant too. Kuper used to save up any money he had and pay him to sit with him during break. He had an extremely weird, deep voice, like the fart of a human bassoon, but he didn’t speak much although he could break walnuts with his bare hands and that was how he got his nickname, nut-breaker.
Nut-breaker, nut-breaker, the nut-breaker will break your nuts for you.
Sven had been Kuper Kopolowski’s first crush. The memory of it still haunted him.
If only, just once, he had plucked up the courage and paid the fresh £1 note required for ‘bum services’ like Roberto Gelato, son of Vincenzo Gelato, owner of Gelato’s Gelatos, the Italian ice cream cabin down at Medieval World of Adventures. How he had strutted around their sixth form the following day, like the cock who had got the… cock.
What a waste!
Why couldn’t that have been me? thought Kuper. Am I such a bad person?
I’ve read Moby Dick three times and that’s no mean feat!
I’ll give Captain Ahab obsession.
After some time has passed our hero, still in the nude, puts his clothes back on and sets about making tea in a kind of delirium. First he fills the kettle, then he gets out the cups. It is as he is retrieving the tea bags from their box that he becomes aware of a kind of low thrumming. Going to the curtains he peers out. Antonio is jigging at his desk, a pall of smoke from his burning cigarette hanging over his head.
“Antonio will be coming round the mountain when he comes. He’ll be coming round the mountain, coming round the mountain, coming over the wall when he comes.”
When Kuper comes out, not from around the mountain but from behind the curtain, tea made, Antonio is standing by the door.
“No time for tea. I've got some things to do. Don't worry if I'm not back until late. Escape attempts are not easy things to organise. Equipment must be procured, plans verified and checked."
He pauses, one hand on the door.
"All these years we’ve worked alongside one another and you’ve never been to my flat over in C____, have you?
“I promise that when all this is over Claudette and I will have you round for dinner. Just the three of us. And maybe a couple of our other friends. Maybe four! Joost. You have met Joost, the thin Dutchman with the squint and pomaded hair. He’s a character for sure. Always asking people the price of meat and he a confirmed vegetarian. What do you think about that? Make a hell of a party of it.
“I’ve sometimes wondered about you, are you lonely as all hell?, that kind of thing, and now I’ve seen how you live, I can see how you are. Like a rabbit in a long run with no other bunnies to play with and mount. Making more fucking bunnies!
“It’s funny isn’t it, how it takes something like this to really make you see things as sound as a pound? In disaster comes truth. The black heart of things.”
The bell jangles as the door clatters shut.
Kuper counts to four before scurrying over to press his face against the glass.
He watches as Antonio, fur collar of his flight jacket turned up, muscular buttocks rippling, disappears into the distance and, feeling like an astronaut floating off into space, quite untethered, he bangs his head once against the door and then again.
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