(Extract from Meltdown for AbcTales Reading Event)
On the day the Social Worker came to do An Intervention Arthur stole a Stylophone from Kev’s Fabulous Keyboards and Stands and played Land of Hope and Glory with all the gust and zest he could muster.
Land of Hope and Glory was the only song he knew all the way through, although he made up his own version of the words, ‘…. Mother’s in the sea’.
After he finished he explained he was going to get a monkey ‘from somewhere’ and go busking down at the station where he was sure to make a killing.
The social worker was as thin as a long skinny branch and Arthur imagined her on a tree with other social workers, rustling in the wind, scaring children with their antics.
He was terrified she was going to take him away and put him in the children’s home. The boys there were made to work in the Municipal Gardens and to hand out inspirational tracts around the shopping centre on weekday afternoons, the electronic tags fitted to their ankles quietly beeping.
Then on Sunday mornings while half the boys sang Pie Jesu the other half would be made to butter bread in front of the homeless and afterwards eat the bread themselves to show the homeless that their predicament was a lifestyle choice and not a benediction.
Pious Lord Jesus
Give them rest
Pious Lord Jesus
Despite Arthur’s protestations that he could care for himself the social worker said it wasn’t typical for fourteen year old boys to be left to their own devices. This was the kind of lie often repeated by a hypocritical establishment because it was common knowledge that behind the old theatre on a nightly basis many parentless boys would gather.
The most daring would wear backless underpants and a luminous lipstick that would shine brightly under the halogen street lights, all the better to entice the rich men from the Southern Resorts, driving their flash cars with many plastic toys on the dashboard and with wives who thought they were both more controlling and loved than they were.
The social worker was all ready to sign him up on the dotted line when George, having seen the distinct social work car outside and sensing something was up, appeared and said quite simply that he would take in the boy, Arthur, he said, would be able to carry on working in the teashop after school and they would fix up a bedroom for him in one of upstairs rooms.
George had used to rent out these rooms for £2 a week to the cockle and winkle sellers. Since the banning of the carts the sale of cockles and winkles had gone underground and the sellers were keeping less high-profile accommodation, moving, so it was said, with the wind.
It was a fait accompli.
The social worker was sent packing, folding her long skinny body into her vehicle in the manner of a bereft praying mantis, and Arthur had only to collect his scant belongings before making the move.
A new life awaited.
Although the old one, as lives are wont to do, did still linger.
Despite her best efforts, Arthur’s mother hadn’t died when she jumped from the Humber Bridge and every Sunday Arthur would take the special ‘madhouse express’, as it came to be known by its regular users, from Central Bus Station out to the somber institution where his mother was housed and it was these trips which beat like a metronome, marking the time of his teenage years.
The dark long corridors of the institution, from which water always seemed to drip and which were adorned with signed black and white photographs of directors past, present and future, filled him with a kind of dread. As did the blank faces of the hospital patients and staff alike. But he maintained the habit of going and, although there was never any perceptible response, he would recount the recent facts of his life to his mother; certain mishaps in the tearoom, a dropped tray, an old man’s miniature Schnauzer pissing against one of the table legs, gossip he had learned from the regulars, usually petty infractions against New Puritanism edicts, Agnés, the lighthouse keeper’s wife, going to Abdul’s Mini-Mart in a lime-green boob-tube and sorting through the display of courgettes in a manner that suggested an ulterior motive, a certain group of teenagers staging a same-sex kiss-in at the black light theatre performance of Annie Get Your Gun, or he would tell her how George was teaching him the basics of the alchemical craft, adding powder to powder to liquid in the back storeroom and creating the most marvellous concoctions, how they had both got themselves passports and gone on long bus journeys together, first to Prague, then to Antwerp and Flanders; how the weather was cold and wet, or how, in Prague, it had snowed, piles and piles of it stacking up against their hotel window, covering the whole city, giving it a uniformity and blandness he would later find tough to shake from his mind, especially when, before the snow, the vistas had been most spectacular, gargoyles and saints twisting their bodies to the full moon from elaborate gothic towers.
Once, remembering his mother’s obsession with hamsters, she had owned a dozen as a little girl, ten in a row all named Charlie Bucket after Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, her favourite Roald Dahl book, he had obtained a baby one from Libby’s Pets and Fish Shop and placed it quite carefully on his mother’s bed.
He thought it might jolt something from her, from her past, from the recesses of her dead mind, but she and the tiny beast had merely stared at each other, one set of black eyes boring into the other, and then somehow he had lost it on the bus ride home. Or it had escaped, sensing its one chance for freedom and a better more fulfilling life.
Despite his heart continually breaking he persisted.
One weekend he brought pictures of his room above the teashop, converted into a den just for him, with its posters of Kraftwerk and Yazoo on the wall, his set of British Manly Exercises bar bells, his collection of Hammond Innes books, The Lonely Skier, The Blue Ice, Wreckers Must Breath and, his favourite, The Angry Mountain, the racks of test tubes, bottles of powders and crystals that towered above his narrow bed, the bed itself with his Hong Kong Phooey soft plush toy his mother had given him years ago and that he still slept with even now.
When he was of an age he told her of his affairs. It was Albert, his old school friend and longterm survivor of the Meltdown game, who became his first amour. They made a kind of love in one of the cramped units of Mario’s Self-Storage while Mario was otherwise engaged, twisting themselves around old bicycles, stacks of slow cookers still in their boxes, an upright piano with a long associated seat, the lid of which Albert liked to bang to hide the sound of his accumulating passion, and then it was Juliette, the daughter of a road sweeper, whose face was always dusty and whose clothes smelt of the detritus her father trudged through on a daily basis, this didn’t only have an odour but also a heft and a weight.
And at the end of each visit to his mother Arthur always said the same thing, “You’re alright, aren’t you mum? You’d tell me if there was something on your mind, wouldn’t you? You know you can trust me. I’m your son.”
But then one day he turned up at the institution and instead of being directed to make his own way to her room, you know the drill, he was taken to a side office by a doctor with an unhealthy squint and rolled up shirt sleeves, a set of coloured Biros in his top left pocket, and was told that his mother had died suddenly.
“She wasn’t alone when it happened,” said the doctor, pinching the end of his nose as if to stifle to sneeze or as if he was about to dive into the deep end of a pool for the first time in a very long time. “There was a nurse in there with her, one of our newer members of staff who had taken a great interest in your mother and was often to be found brushing her hair. And this is the thing, before your mother passed, she opened her eyes and said a single word. Mermaid. Does that mean anything to you?”
“She tried to drown herself,” said Arthur. “In the water. Where mermaids live. That’s the reason she was in here.”
“In that you are mistaken,” said the doctor swiftly. “She was in here because she didn’t drown herself. That is quite a significant difference.”
And then the doctor had sighed, apologised for Arthur’s loss, and moved on to the funeral arrangements.