Meltdown part 1. In which Saltburn-by-the-Sea is not mentioned.
One night, while his mother was out teaching, Thor watched a flickery black and white documentary, mostly in Russian, on their six inch Binotone TV set about a nuclear power station disaster. The long and short of it was that during a late night safety test in which a power outage had been deliberately simulated a superheated steam explosion had taken place releasing highly radioactive material into the air which was carried across Russia and Western Europe.
“Wow-weee,” Thor said out loud and the very next day, still thinking about the show, he stole the tomato sauce dispenser from the condiment table of Rose’s Roadside Café and invented on the spot a game called Meltdown.
Thor’s best friends were Albert and Reggie. They were bad boys the both of them.
Albert had been expelled from school for wiping the English teacher’s packed lunch on Balder’s, the blind boy’s, bum. Where’s the justice? he had said. Balder didn’t even know. And everyone thinks Claymore is a doofus.
Claymore was the English teacher. He had mismatching green and blue eyes, mocked everyone’s accent when they stood to read WB Yeats and was a climate change denier.
Reggie dressed in the style of clothes Public Service Announcements on the radio warned people to avoid wearing; military style coats, big boots and very skinny trousers. On Tuesday nights men dressed in this kind of clobber would descend on Park Pond and engage in previously outlawed mock maritime battles or flock to Andy’s Peep ShowTM, bags of change bulging in their pockets, ready to goad the elderly women dressed in tight blond wigs and pink leotards looking to find a new husband late in life.
After Thor had explained the game to them, he, Albert and Reggie stripped off their clothes and took twenty minutes each under Thor’s mother’s sunlamp, Yves Montand’s Les Canuts playing at full volume on the old phonograph. Afterwards they rubbed the stolen tomato sauce roughly into each other’s bodies. This, Thor explained, was to mimic the effects of Acute Radiation Sickness. The winner of the game would be the one who didn’t die.
It took longer than expected to die. When Thor’s mother came home she found the three boys naked, covered in tomato sauce, and lying in coffins they had made from the empty cardboard boxes the wallpaper she sold from a handcart around the town arrived in.
Pulling at her hair and ears like she had once seen Jane Fonda do in Barefoot in the Park she feared the worst.
It was all happening again.
Seven years before, Thor’s father had been recruited by two men to work on a male only cruise liner, The Coxcombe of the Sea, plying its trade between Stornaway and Kirkwall and although he regularly sent home tiny bundles of dollar notes packed into Swann matchboxes and told her the work in the kitchen’s was both ‘hard and hot’ she knew the truth. He dressed in tight pants and let the elderly male guests fondle him on the poop deck, and down below, for tips.
Having turfed the boys one by one from their coffins Thor’s mother banned Reggie and Albert from ever coming to the house again and the following day she signed Thor up for a course she had seen advertised in the window of Betty’s Tea Shop.
Below the litter of terrapins that would be available at the end of Tuesday week and above Rangar’s Recalcitrant Dog School was a flyer for Aversion Therapy at the United Reform Episcopalian Methodist Quaker Church for Catholics and their Friends.
It turned out the lessons weren’t in the church itself but in the rector’s little house. Rector was a word Thor was already wary of being close to rectum. In truth he, Reggie and Albert had been careful not to touch each other’s bums or wangs, covering those parts of their bodies themselves.
Thor was very particular about this. Some of the tall skinny pale men his mother brought home from the college where she taught an evening class in practical philosophy, followers of Kant and Nietzsche with brightly coloured handkerchiefs hanging from their back pockets which according to another of those Public Information Announcements meant they were up for anything sexually had got him to do things.
One had bought him a wooden sailboat, filled it with homemade Napoleonic soldiers, and then fingered him down the park while they were apparently taking part in a reconstruction of the Battle of WaterlooTM. Another had made him sit naked on a plastic tray while he stuck images of 1930s Hollywood movie stars all over his bare skin, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and so on.
These men didn’t work so much and often his mother would leave them naked in her bed, their pudenda still moist, Thus Spoke Zarathustra open at a pertinent page, while she was out selling wallpaper from her cart. She was hopeful they would still be there on her return and, maybe, marry her, or take her to one of the Southern Resorts where the penny arcades had been specially adapted to accept 50 pence coins, or other similarly shaped coins from the continent, octagons, polygons, impossible dodecahedrons.
But the bed was always empty on her return, the sheets stripped by Thor, washed and hanging out on the municipal line.
It had to be this way.
The bed, by day, was their dining table and the place where they did jigsaws, their favourite one being made of only four pieces and displaying Mount Sinai in complete darkness meaning it wasn’t as easy as it sounded on the box.
But sometimes when his mother came home she was too tired for jigsaws, her limbs sore from pushing the wallpaper cart around and then Thor would rub hazelnut and tamarind paste into his mother’s weary arms and feet.
“You’re ok though, aren’t you mum?” he would ask. “You’re ok?”
Rector Barnabas wore a top hat, fingerless gloves and a bright green Adidas tracksuit that might have fitted a smaller man well.
He liked to run on the spot. It was a way of seeming to move forward without actually going anywhere.
His house was full of suitcases he had made himself by stretching sticky back plastic over a balsa wood frame. On each of the cases he had stamped the words ‘Next stop Paradice’.
Every Easter these suitcases would be transferred to the Church and sold on to the parishioners, the money going to fund an annual retreat for poor penitents in Poulton-le-Flyde. If they could be sin-free in this Northern hotspot then they could be sin-free anywhere, although the rumour went that Rector Barnabas would sneak out in mufti and sample the local non-spiritual delights, supping his fill on vaginal fluids.
For his first lesson the Rector read aloud a long Bible story that Thor was unable to follow, Abraham begatting Elijah begatting Ishmael, the drone of his voice drowned out by the drumming of harsh February rain on the window and then, drawing closer, his breath redolent of prairie oysters and mildewed After Eight mints, he recounted something of his own life; an alcoholic father, beatings in the woodshed, the son of a dairy farmer he had become over-fond of, mistaking the must of soured milk on his fingers for a kind of aphrodisiac. Then, tears in his rheumy old eyes, he had donned a canonical hat and put Beethoven’s symphony number 10 in E flat major on the mighty Colombia Grafonola phonograph while he held up a series of grainy flash cards of Marlon Brando in the nude while he ordered Thor to take off his trousers and pants and to rub himself roughly between the legs with a stiff hairbrush.
That night Thor cried like he had never cried before.
He told his mother he was cured and that if he was never sent to see Rector Barnabas again he would promise never to see Reggie or Albert again.
That was the deal.
The following Summer, despite protestations from his mother that they would manage and that ends would meet, maybe not in the middle, but near the middle, Thor got a job helping out in George’s Alchemical Establishment. Like the shop itself the owner was called George and he really was an alchemist having learnt his trade in the souks of Cairo and the bazaars of Constantinople.
Traditional alchemy, he explained to Thor by way of an introduction on his first day, was concerned with the transformation of base metals into precious ones, the creation of an elixir that brought about immortality and certain panaceas that could cure any illness. He, however, and he said this with his eyelids drooping, a sign that Thor was later able to understand indicated a heavy heart full to the brim with disappointment, due to popular demand and at the behest of certain newspaper small ad editors, specialised in erectile disfunction, love potions, remedies for period pains and hair loss.
George lived in the back of the cluttered shop, its walls filled with shelves, the shelves filled with bottle after bottle after bottle. George had a wide silver toaster that could take six slices of bread at once, a complete set of the works of Anthony Trollope, dusty books with embossed stiff green covers, and a mat that rolled out into a bed. Having had an uncle who swore his downfall was caused by being caught in a stiff wind George was afraid of drafts and always had the bottom of his trousers tucked into his socks and he wore shirts with very tight collars.
On a Wednesday afternoon George closed the shop early. It was all a mystery but after Thor had been working at the alchemist’s shop for a few weeks George explained that he attended a whist event with other local small businessmen at a scout hut and if he wanted Thor could tag along.
Thor had never played whist before but in truth the meeting was hardly about that. Business cards were swapped, ideas exchanged about how to fight the big businesses that were encroaching steadily upon the town. Rumour had it that Evans was buying land and was planning a huge retail park filled with his own franchises. That would be the death of the town.
Inspired by this trust in him, walking home Thor told George about his mother’s men, the philosophers, who did things to him and the next day George presented him with a small plastic package containing a red paste. Thor asked if it was an alchemical potion, he was used now to the harsh smells, Aqua Fortis, spirit of turpentine, caustic potash, but George explained no, the paste had been made from a Carolina Reaper chilli, the hottest chilli in the world. He tapped his nose, grinned slyly, and used words that Thor had only ever heard when he was friends with Reggie and Albert back in the day.
“It burns. Apply to arsehole or cock-eye. Either end is ok.”
That Winter there was an election during which milk bottles filled with petrol got thrown. One street seller was killed outright and another lost his legs. A new government was elected and a law was passed which banned selling anything from handcarts, even lobsters and dishcloths with embroidered edges or doilies to place your cups upon.
The new Prime Minister said this was for health and safety reasons but he was photographed just a week later in one of Evans’ amusement arcades being passed a bag of loose change for the slots.
For a time Thor’s mother took her wallpaper cart out only at night. She would position herself beneath a low hanging tree and whistle stealthily at any passing trade, drunk sailors from the port, moon worshippers in their long white robes, the gangs of men who would crawl the streets at night, wearing only nappies, crying for their past sins and misdeeds. But then someone reported her and under the glaring sun government agents arrived at their home, cast out the cart, and smashed it to smithereens right outside in the street for everyone to see.
For two weeks they lived on tins of sardines and cans of spaghetti ‘n’ sausages, bought with the money Thor earned from the alchemy shop but then the rent was due and Thor needed new trousers for school, ones that didn’t ride up his bum, dividing his cheeks so decisively that when he went for a shit they came together like friends at a party who hadn’t seen each other for years. Then his mother saw a card in the window of Betty’s Tea Shop saying prostitutes were needed at the port.
“Mum,” said Thor plaintively, “you don’t need to do this,” but her argument was that if she wasn’t going to earn the money to bring up her son then who was?
The Sailors were great readers of Joseph Conrad, C. S. Forester and Arthur Ransome. They carried flip-photo albums with grainy photographs of all the ships they had sailed on and, before getting down to the deed, they could carry a funny tale. At night though, after his mother had gone out for snacks, for if she fed them, she thought, they might take her away to Martinique, or French New Guinea, or Vanuatu, they were even worse than the Philosophers and their silly handkerchiefs.
After being surprised by the first one, a huge brown-skinned barrel-chested man with enormous earrings he had made himself, matchstick models of the first two schooners he had sailed in, Thor remembered the paste George and given him and he went to sleep with it coated in his fingers.
He found it worked best if he put his fingers up their bums, some of them even liked this initially, until the burning started. By then it was too late to wash it off. But after the third got taken to the emergency room and was balanced in his head while irrigated by a team of nurses word got around, and the sailors after that avoided his mother like the plague.
Night after night she stood on the street corner but no one would touch her, not even when she got down on her knees.
Thor believed he had done the right thing. He had saved his mother’s shame. But he was a boy and he didn’t understand shame.
Three weeks later unable to take anymore, the loss of her business, the shame of selling herself and of not being able to sell herself, but most of all not being able to support the son she loved, Thor’s mother walked two hours out of town and jumped from the apex of the suspension bridge.
Down, down, down she went into the fastly flowing waters. Home only to fishes and seals and mermaids.
Yves Montand - Les Canuts https://youtu.be/Te2PpgGvxhs