Crazy Diamonds - Engraved Stranger (revised 1st chapter)
By Jude O'Flynn
My name is Nick Moore, which is also an instruction to steal things. Somehow, I’ve been accepted into Cambridge University. I’m single and my college has a 9:1 female-male ratio.
I almost missed this chance to escape Basingstoke. My History A-level exams didn’t quite go as planned – I didn’t attend one of them and I may as well have not turned up to the other. The exam board made my E a D because of ‘mitigating circumstances’, which can be described as follows: I was living with my mum in a flat in the roughest part of town; concentrating on revision is difficult when you can hear screaming by the chippy; the block of flats was set on fire. But I got an A in English Literature, and the combination of unusually low grade requirements and a surprisingly inspired admission interview secured me a ticket to paradise.
Mum and Dad split up around the time I started at sixth form and he’s allegedly now on an island where puffins outnumber people. While I was relieved to be away from the constant tension of an unhappy marriage, it was on balance slightly preferable to living in an area where it’s considered odd not to have a criminal record. Talking of which, the less said about Thor’s violent past the better, as it only elevates his regular angry state to furniture-breaking rage. Thor is a mad Norwegian-Scottish mechanic who Mum contacted on a whim, having not spoken to him since they were at school together in the 70s. Just after my exams, Mum and I moved in with him, which means I’m obliged to refer to him as my stepdad. Thor’s deeply resentful about having obligations too, such as driving me to Cambridge tomorrow.
I’m on the BEd English Literature with Education Studies course, which means I’ll eventually have to go on school placement. I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was ten years old, and when I applied, university was mainly a means to that end. But not now. After everything that’s happened in the past year – the arguments, the fire, the hours and hours of moping in college corridors and woodlands – I just want to be somewhere else. I keep thinking about the carving on the tree by the dual carriageway bridge. It’s a gingerbread man outline just above a thick branch about 15 feet high. Mum said it’s the signature of the deceased, or words to that effect. I’m sick of seeing it whenever I walk into town. I try not to look, but every single time, my eyes stray in the direction of the cookie-cutter reminder that the artist won’t be coming back.
When he’s not threatening to kill someone, Thor keeps telling me I should work at the garage. I shudder at the thought of propped-up engine covers and listening to conversations about cylinders and tyres and all that boring bloke bollocks. Now and then Mum chimes in by suggesting I could get a job with her at the old folks’ home. ‘It’ll do you good,’ she says. I’ve given up trying to explain that wiping an 85-year old’s arse will do me no good whatsoever.
I’m beginning to think that Dad had the right idea. Abandon human contact. Pitch up on a rock and listen to the waves. Watch the sun rise and watch it set. But, like Thor, my Dad has practical skills and I do not. He will have fashioned a hut out of driftwood and sorted out his five-a-day, which is something I can’t do despite living within a mile of three supermarkets. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Not me. I’d forget the procedure. I’d lose the fishing rod.
There was a time when I liked learning stuff. It was when there were no passive-aggressive comments at breakfast, no tears at tea-time. At school, I used to collect house points like I used to collect Panini stickers. I won a trophy in year 8 for a design and technology project that I didn’t have to do. I got a certificate for trying hard in orienteering. I was Sales Director in a Young Enterprise company. And then, maybe even a fortnight later, an achievement was obtaining a two-litre bottle of White Lightning and drinking it undetected. This perspective lasted throughout sixth form, given the problems at home and the fact that I still look younger than a Snowman-era Aled Jones.
I have no idea what gave me the gall to apply to Cambridge. None of my family have been to university, and yet I thought, ‘Why not? The course looks great and the photos look great, especially the one with the happy students gathered in front of a large wooden door that reminds me of The Hobbit.’ Yes, one of the main motivations for my audacious application is that I saw a picture of a nice door. No one needs to know about this. My place at university is just as valid as the next person’s. That’s what I have to keep telling myself.
It’s the year 2000. A year for starting afresh. No more sulking and self-pity. No more cheap cider in the park. I need to pack my suitcase. I need to ask Mum to stop playing ‘Livin’ la Vida Loca’. I need to find another CD. Foo Fighters – There Is Nothing Left to Lose. That’ll do.