Monday 24th November, 1986
1. The Island
England, across the way, though it could not be seen tonight. The Sound was long and still. The boy crouched by the hedge, moonlight white on his skull. Underneath him was Lynemouth Town, slipping down the hill slope toward the sea. A few lights were on here and there but mostly it was dark. You could think, up here, that the Island might be alone in this, this sea; a great glob of earth, with nothing else for miles but water.
Looking at the Sound like that, looking so deceptively calm, always made Nathaniel think of his da, and how the sea had gobbled him up in its brackish waters. His da’s boat would be out there, its keel dragging along the seabed, his body wet and strewn.
His da was one of the first men of the Secular Movement to be expelled to the Island, in 1951, a fact which made Nathaniel very proud. Jack Malraux had been a plumber in Hartlepool before being found responsible for one of the church-burnings in the summer of 1950 and deported here.
On the Island, Jack’s trade was fishing and he’d done well from it. Nathaniel remembered the excitement of greeting his dad in Warkworth Bay when he came home for the weekend, and the rolling sound of the chains fixing the boat to the pier. When he left again, on the Monday morning, Nathaniel would accompany him down to the jetty, in the plum-blue mornings, in the winter months when the Island was all diamonded frost and sheeted ice, his hand in his father’s hand, as they walked down toward the water’s edge. Nathaniel would watch the boat leave, his da waving from the deck, knowing himself to be a softly shrinking dot in the distance, as his father sailed away to fish.
It was an English boat Jack had sailed out on. An English boat Jack had gone down with. No rocks or storms; most likely the caulk had given and the boat had sunk. Nathaniel imagined the English laughing when they had given the Islanders that boat, they must have known it could not be seaworthy for long.
A very English murder, this: unseen, bloodless, far away in time.
The moon was a dab of light now, not much more, what with the clouds tonight. Nathaniel wondered if there might be a twin of him, in England, a bald boy too, looking out across this sea, thinking about him. He wondered if his English twin also imagined descending on his scalp a cudgel to watch the blood ream. He’d like that; he’d always imagined English blood thick, like a pool of liquorice he’d seen melting one day last summer. The boy ranked his da’s death as one of the Island’s finest humiliations at the hands of the English. Worse than the Newcastle riots, worse than the Secular Deportations of ’51 or ’77; his da’s death in that English boat rankled most.
Nathaniel set off up Marley Hill. He was a bald boy with a long throat, dressed in tight trousers and a military jacket, with gold braid on the epaulettes. The sleeves were a touch short and the studs of his wrists were frozen in the night. The trousers too were short of his ankles so that they showed the slope of his boots, which had been his da’s, and which he’d given a rollicky-polish this evening to prepare for the scrap tonight. The boy wore handkerchiefs in the boots to stop his feet slipping. Red braces swaddled him neatly like a baby.
That afternoon, in his ma’s bathroom, he’d smeared something on his lips called Pomade Divine. He knew it was meant for hair but he smeared it richly on his lips. On the front of the tin was a man with slick hair and a leer; Pomade Divine tasted of apples.
The hill was steep and the grass nearly bald with the Island’s shearing winds. It was freezing, but he wouldn’t shiver: because what was November on the Island but a cold to knock the breath from you? And leafless trees, and freezing nights, and the wind from off the Sound enough to make your balls into clams?
In the dark peat, further from the path, mushrooms grew, a whole moony lot of them. Something about their soft bright bonnets made him feel sick, or maybe it was not that, but the gills underneath, that made him pure want to heave. Nathaniel looked out for the Island’s flowers his da had told him of: bog cotton, sandwort and rock-cress, but it was too dark to see anything but the mushroom domes. Just before the hilltop he ambled over to one of the swelling white patches and mashed the mushrooms into the grass.
Warkworth Bay was visible now and you could see where the skerries were from the waves’ white froth. The pier, which would welcome the English boat tonight, had disappeared in the dark.
Nathaniel placed his boots down hard, since a misplaced foot could send a boy tumbling off the cliffs to the Sound. Where up at the summit Warkworth Town had been a shimmer of white, the houses now reared above him, their walls thick and coated in sea spray, the slated roofs dark. Handkerchiefs slipped gently in his boots. He wondered when he would fill them.
Shop awnings were going mad in the sea’s fetch, and the Islanders were scurrying about beneath them, thronging the grocer’s, and the fishmonger’s, their coats billowing out from them, big as sails. Nothing much had changed in Maiden’s Square since the emergency powers had brought the first men and women of the Movement here in 1951. In an elegant hand, the signs that hung from the shop fronts read: Stansky & Sons (above the fishmonger’s), Buttons (above Mrs Bingley’s clothes shop), Caro’s Launderette, Forrester’s Funerary Services, and a grocer’s, doctor’s, and hardware shop, for ‘tools, cutlery and hardware’, and ‘oils, paints and varnishes’. And in rippled black glass, the walls unpainted, unlike the rest, the museum stood at the northeastern corner of the square. Walled in photographs, it told the Island’s short history, and held the books and pamphlets the Church sent over to educate their godless kin. Mostly, they ended up graffiti’d – often by Nathaniel and his boys.
The boat, which was called the Saviour and came weekly from England with supplies – potatoes, generators, rope, fish-tackle, medicine, newspapers and religious propaganda, amongst other things – did not deliver cigarettes. In fact, there had been no cigarettes on the Island in the past thirty-six years. The Islanders had always seen it as yet another form of punishment from England, though the men could have lived a lot longer with their untarred lungs, had it not been for the Sound filling them up so frequently, and fatally, with its lusty waters.
Nathaniel, however, had cigarettes. Tonight, he lit one, not caring who saw him. The shoppers gave him a funny look. He grinned: a smile which broke his face in two like a split egg. He stretched out on the bench, waiting, and watching. Mr Forrester, in the funeral home, was working at his desk. Two girls from school were walking arm in arm from the launderette; one had a dress draped over her arm. Nathaniel winked at her and told her he’d take her somewhere nice in that; she flushed and looked away. Fish-skins glistened in the monger’s. Arthur Stansky went about his work, pausing here and there to drag scale and innards down his pinny. Arthur was a bloody mess but he seemed not to mind.
And there Jake came, lumbering along, a little late, something about his get-up – which was the same as Nathaniel’s – a little askew, the jacket too tight about the middle, the boots a little dull. Aye, his boots could do with a polish. He didn’t look like a Malade; not like him; not as sharp by halves. Jake was an enormous boy, a head taller than Nathaniel, with his arms hanging down to those hands the width of a spade apiece. His soft bulk always surprised Nathaniel, as if a separate, leaner Jake existed in Nathaniel’s imagination. Aye, there was something whalelike about the boy, something gentle but irritating about the boy’s great tonnage.
‘I told you not to let your hair grow so long,’ said Nathaniel, when the boy was close enough. Bristles spun from the boy’s crown.
‘Aye,’ Jake said, scratching his head.
‘Mam’s asked me to grow it a bit. She says I look like a victim of summat, when I’m all shaven, like.’
‘On yer bike, Jakob. Your mam’s got nowt to do with it.’
‘I can’t help what she says.’
‘Did you say you were a Malade? That this is what our gang is for, now? That all us boys are like this?’
‘No.’ And then: ‘Aye.’
‘And what does “No. Aye,” mean now?’ Jake shrugged and eyed Nathaniel’s cigarette hungrily. ‘How is your mam?’
‘Well,’ said Jake, ‘and Mammy Malraux?’
‘Fine,’ and then, to goad him, ‘When is your mam to invite me to fish supper?’
‘You know you’re not allowed back to mine,’ Jake said, and Nathaniel knew this but still liked to crab him about it. Just to get Jake upset was pleasure enough for him.
They watched people come in and out of the shops, carting their plaid trolleys or shopping bags, their faces flat in the lamplight. Nathaniel and Jake were waiting for the rest of the gang, the Malades, waiting for their skulls to come bobbing down Marley Hill toward Maiden’s Square.
Tonight, Nicholas Tucker was to be initiated into the gang.
They didn’t speak for a bit, and Nathaniel was reminded of Jake’s habit of wetting his lips, over and over again, furtively, with his tongue. Nath was about to reprimand him, but something about his eyes, their baleful stare, hooded by the wide flat lids, stopped him. Jake’s hands, on the spread thighs, looked babyish. Who knew where the bones were in those things?
‘Can I have a cig, Nath?’
‘No. I don’t have many left.’
‘Are you getting no more from the Boatie tonight?’
‘No. Not tonight. Got nothing to exchange them for.’
‘Your ma’s pills?’
‘There’s not enough left. I have to leave some for her, aye.’
‘Have you been taking them?’
‘Stop crabbing me, Jake! You’re an old woman at times. My ma forgot to order more. So no pills, no cigarettes. We’ll get more next week.’ Nathaniel squashed the cigarette onto the bench. He had smoked it too quickly and a yellowy sort of nausea passed from his gut to his throat. An explorative belch made him feel better. Arthur held a fish by its tail in the monger’s waxed light. Without taking his eyes off it – It might be skate! And how long was it since he’d eaten fish!– Nathaniel said: ‘When are the boys coming?’ ‘At six. As we arranged.’ And though he knew the answer already he asked, ‘And who is it? Who’s to be the Freshcut?’
‘Lumme.’ Nathaniel’s hand over his scalp produced a lovely rasp; he wondered if only he was party to the sound. ‘What a good idea. Did he suggest it himself?’
‘Aye. Said he wanted to be in the gang. So I said I’d ask you.’ Nathaniel nodded his assent, then slipped off the bench, and tilted his head for Jake to follow him.
Buttons was a big long shop with all the original fittings and fancy ironwork. A bell rang as they came into the shop, which was warm, much warmer than outside. Mrs Bingley emerged, took one look at them and her face turned stern. An elderly lady with white hair and thick calves, she wore a paisley dress with brown tights the colour of the peat on Marley Hill. Mrs Bingley folded her big soft arms across her big soft chest. ‘What do you want, now? I’m not wanting any trouble. It’s too late in the day for that.’
‘Hallo, Mrs Bingley. Nice to see you, too. We’re not causing trouble. Promise.’
Mrs Bingley touched her hair, pushing up the curls; they had a lavender tinge. ‘How’s your mam?’
‘You shouldn’t be causing her any more ache than she’s already got, you know.’
‘Aye, I promise you, Mrs Bingley. I want to buy Ma a present, that’s all.’
‘Like what?’ Old-fashioned dresses hung from the walls as well as corduroy trousers and tweed skirts. There was a sharp smell, as if the clothes had brought with them the scent of the boat’s bilge. ‘This is all I have.’
‘Mrs Bingley. Now, now, now. Is there nothing new here?’
‘Oh no, dear. We haven’t had any clothes from England since six months now. I have a mind of having a word with the Boatman.’
‘And why don’t you?’
‘On your way, he’d scare me half to death. Not on your life am I talking to an Englishman. No. It wouldn’t be proper.’ She looked both prim and thrilled by the thought of converse with an Englishman. ‘Imagine his churchy hands on me!’ For a moment, her gaze was far away. ‘On with your business, now. What did you have in mind?’
Nathaniel shrugged. ‘Something for my ma.’ Mammy Malraux needed something new, something to lift her spirits. He didn’t know what to do; he worried after her. If only he could be as good to his ma as he intended to be . . . but the wall of smoke that hung in the living room, the intolerable warmth, the long blab of the television set . . . That living room sent him mad for the scrap, so that as he sat for hours in front of the gas-fire, all he could think of was the boys, the Malades, his gang! He knew he disappointed her, but he couldn’t seem to help it. ‘I don’t know. I’d like to buy her something. So that she might think about stepping out here and there. She doesn’t leave the house, aye.’
Mrs Bingley suggested one or two dresses much the same as her own, but they were all drab. Nathaniel held up the dresses to himself in the changing-room mirror. ‘Nothing slimmer? Or slimming?’
‘This is all I have,’ she said, gesturing around her.
A clapping sound came from the outside, of boots against the flagstones. It must be six. The boys passed the length of the glass, their scalps passing in whitish blur, settling near the stage, talking excitedly.
‘Let’s off, now, Nathaniel,’ said Jake. The boy stared through the cold glass, his gigantic hand now banging the pane and waving to the boys outside.
‘Oi! You leave well alone of that window, you hear!’ Mrs Bingley’s eyes shuttled from the gang outside to the boys in her shop. Her whole face had gone a shade of crimson. ‘I told you, Nathaniel, I said I don’t want any trouble. You sharking about outside my shop does not help business, d’you hear me, son?’
‘Bye, Mrs Bingley!’ Jake said as he pulled open the door and ran out. Cold air burst in. Nathaniel put the dress back to its rail. He did his best syrupy voice for her, as if he were talking to his own mam, and took her plump old hand in his. ‘Don’t you worry, Mrs Bingley. We’ll be right as rain. Don’t you worry about us. We’re Island boys, we shan’t be any trouble!’ And he gave her hand a squeeze, before dashing into the square.
The Malades were a beautiful bunch, in the way that scraping the scalp of all the fuzz brought out their bonny eyes, their full boys’ lips. What slick little outfits they had managed! They were all dressed like Nathaniel and did not wear much, for November. Their mams pure despaired of them, urging an extra scarf on them, or a more sensible jacket, which they always – in fear of Nathaniel – refused, because who might know what kind of mood he was in, whether the humiliation might be a whole-scale attack, or something worse; total exclusion from the gang. They were all so pale; no one darker than a candlestick. But there was something very pretty about them, too, quite a nursery of daft infants.
The boys gossiped about the Islanders, who might be showing signs of churchliness and who might be their next target. They talked about their mams and what they were up to. For those fortunate enough, they talked about their da’s on the fishing boats, and what they had done with them on the rare weekend that they were back on Island soil.
One boy stood apart. He looked nervous, and was moving a finger up and down his collar. He was a good-looking boy, soft-featured, younger than the rest, his eyes darting from Nathaniel to Jake, not knowing which one to settle on. He stood in front of Forrester’s funeral parlour. ‘All right, boy,’ Nathaniel said to him across the way, ‘you’re right at the dead centre over there, aye. Why don’t you come and have a chat with us?’
‘Aye,’ he said, but he didn’t move. In the latening evening, the night had become cooler still.
‘I hear you want to be in our gang.’
The boy took cautious steps toward them. ‘Aye,’ he said.
‘Have you been to the museum, of late?’
‘I went last year.’
Nathaniel’s laugh was high and easy. ‘Not good enough. You have to go often – many times – once a month, maybe, or every week, so you can ken your past. You’ve got to see the church-burnings, you’ve got to see how the Movement were kicked out of England in ’51, and then again in ’77. You’ve got to see how easy it is for faith to hijack your head! Oh, aye, you’ve heard what your mammy has said, and your da, as he dandled you on his knee before the ?re. But unless you go to the museum, and often at that, you won’t understand the English mentality. You won’t understand how God has grown up around the English like cobwebs, while they weren’t paying attention, and how it could, any minute, here, if our boys aren’t alertful of the signs. You’ve got to go so you can understand who you are. A child not just of Mammy and Pappy, aye, but of the Movement. So it’s baneful shocking, you see, to hear it was a year ago you went.’ The boy’s lips trembled. There was nowhere to hide his shame and it rose as a pink wave from his throat to his brow. ‘Och, now, Nicholas, not to worry. Next time, aye?’ And Nathaniel chucked him on the back of his pate, lightly, and smiled at him, so that Nicholas lost the watchful look and he smiled back, hesitantly. ‘I like your hair, Nicholas, did you do that yourself?’
‘Aye,’ he said.
‘Did your mam blub when she saw you?’
‘She gave me a right bollocking, yeah.’
The boys were a ring around him now, their baldheads half in shadow, half in light. Some of them laughed, remembering how their mams had been when they too had shaved their scalps. ‘Well, you’re all done now. And your scalp shines like a lovely penny. Now we’re just going to ask you a few questions, get you to commit to some things. We’ve all taken the oaths. Don’t worry. No fish heads or guts or any of that daft shite you might have heard of. No, boy. Just some firm moral matters of principle, which you might find in any tough boys’ gang. We’re a good lot, us, but we don’t like casuals. Understand?’ Nicholas nodded his head. Nathaniel leaned in and said very tenderly, like a father might, ‘Then you’ll be a Malade, like me, like Jake, like all of the boys, and you can help us with the cause.’
Nathaniel looked around the group. ‘There is a ring of spies on this Island, working for England. Trying to get us back into God’s acre. Soon the Island will be as faithful as London! Aye, aye: the walls of the church are not built in the freezing air but in the ramparts of the heart! Here, an aunt may be praying at night. There, a brother may be caught reading the English rag – or worse, fingering pages of scripture. One moment they’ll merely be faithful, the next moment they will be at Warkworth beach welcoming English warships. So,’ he turned to Nicholas. ‘This is what I’m going to ask you. Have you ever been a Got?’
‘No,’ the boy said.
‘Are you sure, now?’
‘No one in your family, either? A Got? A believer?’
‘Tell me, boy, have you ever believed? Have you ever felt the blood of God in your veins? Or heard his words in your mind?’
‘Are you sure of that, boy? We’ll understand if you have. It can be nice. The soft babble of God in your ears.’ Sweat had pricked high on Nicholas’s forehead. Where his skin had been white it was now greenish about the chops, froggy and damp. ‘He’s a great comforter to those lost at sea.’
‘Not a prayer, sweetheart? Not a moan for a mollycoddle when Pappy popped his boots? The sea is cruel to us, you couldn’t say we’re not in baneful need.’
Nicholas’s voice was barely a whisper. ‘No. Nothing. I promise.’
The boys were tense and ready. Their boots kept edging them closer. He felt a great ministry within him, a great stillness, holding back until they were really at the dampish verge. Though Nathaniel’s sight was fixed on Nicholas, the other boys hung, weightless, in the corner of his vision. ‘And if your ma had gone all syrupy with faith? And decided to spy for England? Or your da? Would you tell us? Would you let your boys in kin know of the failings of your family?’
‘What about your sister? Lovely Charlotte? If she were spying for England, trying to get the Island back to the Ministry, would you tell us, so that we could treat her how she deserved?’
‘Aye, aye, I’d tell you.’
‘One last thing; then you’ll be just like us: a Malade, through and through.’ Nathaniel reared his fist and caught his knuckles on the boy’s lips. Blood issued from his mouth, as red as jam.
The boys’ laughter was a distant sound as if they were a great way from him, beyond the Sound, even. Nathaniel slipped his index finger into the wet hollow of the boy’s mouth. ‘Now a Malade,’ he said again, ‘through, and through.’
For a moment, Nicholas was aghast. Something hallucinatory about the blood coming from – where was it? His tongue? Or had it been his nose that had burst? It was a brown taste in his mouth. Seconds passed, and he cupped his face in his hands: he had expected this, this predicted violence. And it had not been so bad. And so he smiled, the blood like a tonic on his tongue.
Nathaniel cooed, ‘Aye, Nicholas,’ and ruffled the baby spikes of his hair, declaring the boy one of the gang.
Oiled on all of this sudden affection, Nicholas smiled with the blood still coming from his lips and gums. He spoke quickly, lightly, laughing, ‘See I knew you’d do that. Knew it. Knew I was in for some questions, and then a bit of the scrap. But I was ready. Ha! Yes. Now I’m a Malade, a marauding Malade, just like you!’ Nicholas mopped his chin with a hankie.
Jake called: ‘Down to the Sound now!’
‘Off with you,’ Nathaniel said, because the whim took him, ‘I’m not going down to the Sound tonight.’
‘But the dunking, like with Sammy, and me ’
‘No. That’s not part of the game any more. We don’t go down to the bay any more.’
‘I’m only saying that when I was a Freshcut, there was a dunking in the Sound after the Square and now—’
‘Not any more. Listen, Jake. Listen to what I say.’
Nathaniel lit a cigarette and passed it between the boys so that the earthy smell of tobacco filled the square. The boys smoked, concentrating hard. They looked with some degree of fascination at the smoke now clouding the air, and the ashy, not unpleasant tastes in their mouths. Jake refused the smoke, his mouth pouting and cross.
‘All I envy them for. Those cigs.’ After the boys had had their smokes, Nathaniel had the last of it then flicked it out across the square. It went burning in a pleasing arc. ‘If the Gots had their way, faith’d spread through the Island like the flu. If someone sneezed you’d catch God in your nose. No, no, no, there’s more to life than sacrificing everything for Old Man upstairs.’ His face cracked into a philosophical smile. ‘But they make a fine cigarette. I must say that. And it hurries them up to Kingdom Come, so at least the cigmaker is possessed of all his senses.’
A wave of tiredness passed over him, as it always did, and Nathaniel felt that familiar restive feeling – not dissatisfaction, quite, but something close to it. This always happened after the scrap, as if the violence were not big enough to dispossess him of some sad and unknown memory. ‘Who’s on for Wednesday night, then?’
‘Eliza Michalka?’ said Sammy.
‘Nah,’ said Nathaniel, ‘I’d rather stare at that pudding all day than throw rocks at it. Another time. Once I’ve crabbed her, perhaps.’
‘As if you could crab her without paying for it.’
‘That I could, Jakob Lawrence, I’d be down to the Grand and have her pudding before I could even ask for the spoon.’
Jake looked away, as if embarrassed.
‘Mrs Richards, then,’ said Sammy.
‘The maths teacher! Lumme,’ said Nathaniel. ‘Why? The evidence?’
‘I hear she talks to the girls after school. Teaching them Bible and scripture. It’s thought she’s in contact with the English. She’s a spy, all right. Through and through.’
‘Grand,’ said Nathaniel. ‘We’ll check her out. We’re all on dispatch tonight and tomorrow night. See who comes in and out of that house from seven o’clock onwards. We don’t want to crab her while the big man is there. All right, boys?’
And the boys ran from the square, following Nathaniel, this gang who would come and clap faith from any beating heart. The night was now a dark black lump, but they knew the Island instinctively, like worms in soil, and they were happy, the whole sleek lot of them. Six Malades now, aye.
Oh, life was a laugh, a lark, a love, on this Island of his!