Jack

Sometime around March 2011 I started working on two different projects; an SF novel that had been bubbling away in the back of my mind for years, and an idea for a children’s novel that was of rather more recent vintage. It didn’t take me long to realise I’d need to focus on one or the other if I wanted either of them to get anywhere. I’d lived with the grown up book longer, I knew it better, and I spent most of the rest of the year writing it. The extract below is from the other one, still untitled. I’m putting it up here, as much as anything else to remind myself that it’s waiting for me to come back.

– 1 –

Smelt

Jack Ganderley was kicking a juicebox along the pavement. Of course the battered juicebox, previously filled with orange-banana-pineapple flavoured sugar water and now rapidly filling with holes, wasn’t really a juicebox; and the cracked concrete slab covered in specks of ancient chewing gum wasn’t really a pavement. Jack was passing the time on his way home from school by playing right back for Sandford United, holding up the ball as two opposing players closed in, chipping it neatly around the outside before they knew what had happened and then streaking between them to collect the ball and carry it up the wing.

His inept challengers, in the form of an old couple shuffling along to Thursday afternoon bingo at the village hall, swayed a bit on their walking sticks, then steadied themselves and turned to glare at the 12-year-old’s receding back as he skipped around another clumsy defender, this time in the person of a bright-red postbox, and fired the carton around the corner onto Chaseton Street.

“Manners!” shouted old Mr. Bearson.

“Put that in a bin!” yelled old Mrs. Bearson.

“Should ‘ave a clip around the ear ‘e should,” grumbled old Mr. Bearson. “In my day wouldn’t ‘ave ‘ad it, no sir. You all right my dear?” this to Mrs. Bearson, who was regarding him with an amused twinkle.

“In your day Ronald,” she observed, “you were a bigger rascal than that lad will ever manage.” Mr. Bearson harrumphed rather proudly, and he and Mrs. Bearson got themselves turned around and back on their way.

Jack would have been troubled by this pronouncement, had he heard it.  He had declined to join in teasing plump Charlie Suarez, who had shown up that morning with braces and a lisp. He wasn’t particularly friends with Charlie, but wasn’t particularly enemies either and didn’t see the point of tormenting someone unless they had actually gone out of their way to deserve it. Cameron Carstairs, self-appointed ringleader of the Year 7 Bully Club, had taken exception to Jack’s refusal.

Words followed, along with some shirt-pulling and squaring off.  It would probably have ended there – Cameron was too slight to try his luck with fisticuffs, and had already tried and failed to intimidate Jack on several occasions – had not Miss Swinston come out of her classroom just in time to hear the final exchange of insults. They had both been held back for half-an-hour, and had to listen to Mr. Applebaum, the Head, lecture them on the grievious consequences of Bad Language and Poor Deportment. What particularly annoyed Jack were the extra helpings of Adult Concern that had been lavished on him.

“Now Carstairs and I have had this discussion. Many many times! I’m beginning to think he doesn’t listen,” said the Head. “But you, Ganderley! I wouldn’t have thought it would be necessary! I am very distressed. I hope, I hope this will be the first, and last time we have to have this little chat.”

Jack was irritated enough to wonder whether there might not be some satisfaction in disappointing old Applebaum. If he had known that he was considered incapable of rising to the level of devilry of old Mr. Bearson – retired policeman, purveyor of church raffle tickets, and bingo hall stalwart – he would have been certain of it.  As it was, he aimed a vicious shot at the narrow gap between bollards where a footpath meandered off Chaseton Street into Chasemere Park. He was raising his arms in triumph, only to drop them when the juicebox careened off a bollard, failing to score and skidding to a stop against a very old, very dirty, very heavy-looking hobnailed boot.

The boot disappeared under a tattered trouser leg, which itself disappeared under a worn brown oilskin coat. Jack’s gaze kept travelling up. The man who wore the coat, trousers and boots (it was a pair) was tall and stood straight and strong, even though he was very old. Jack thought he might even be as old as the Bearsons, but you couldn’t imagine this geezer ever leaning on a stick. His face was deeply lined and half-covered with a grizzled white beard, and his eyes glinted steel-grey at Jack from under an old-fashioned hat with a wide brim and squashed crown.

“Um, sorry,” said Jack.

The old man fixed him with a look that made Jack squirm. He slowly bent down and picked up the battered juicebox.

“You punishing this for a reason?” he asked. His voice was unexpectedly deep and rich, and the words seemed to linger in the air. For some reason Jack thought of hammers clanging and echoing in a huge room far away.

“Uh no. Just, um, practising,” said Jack. He felt clumsy and awkward, far more than the situation seemed to merit. He held out a hand. “I can, ah, throw that away …”

The old man was turning the juicebox over in his hands. They were big and knobby and looked very strong.

“This is a marvel, this is,” he said. “Paper that can hold water!” he glared at Jack. Jack stared back, bemused.

“OK,” said Jack. “I guess.”

“No wood or metal or glass or china or even plastic. Paper.”

“Um,” said Jack. “It’s just a juicebox …”

“Yes,” said the man. “Just a juicebox.” He tossed it into the bin that stood next to the footpath. “Bloody miracle it is. Was.”

“Excuse me,” Jack said. “A miracle?” The moment the words were out he wondered why he had spoken. He wasn’t afraid of the man, exactly, but the squirmy feeling was still chasing itself up and down his insides. He was probably just some old nutter, the kind who shouted at cars and collected mushrooms in Chaseside Wood, but something about the way he had called the juicebox a miracle got up Jack’s nose.

The old man frowned at Jack from underneath eyebrows as white, wiry and prolific as the beard.

“Yes,” he said simply. “And no. Once something so useful and obvious gets invented, no one thinks anything of it. But the world before and after is a very different place.”

Jack blinked. “The world is different because of juiceboxes?” he asked. He meant it to sound sarcastic, but it came out annoyingly sincere. The man laughed. The rich ringing tone was even stronger when he laughed.

“Among other things,” he said.  He cocked his head at the sun, sinking low in the sky, and then at Jack. He seemed to take in the grubby school uniform for the first time. “You’re late,” he said.

“I got held back,” Jack replied, and again kicked himself. Why had he said that? Why was he talking to this weird old guy, next to the path that led to the woods as evening was coming on? But the more he thought of all the reasons why he should be afraid, the less afraid he felt.

“Were you beating up on something else?” the old man inquired, so pleasantly that it took Jack a moment to grasp the import of the question.

“No,” he blurted back, feeling the heat rising on the back of his neck. The accusation made him angry, but that feeling was overwhelmed by a strange desire not  to have this mad old git think badly of him. Or more badly of him. “No, as a matter of fact, because I wouldn’t.”

The unlikeliness of being punished for not doing the wrong thing seemed to trouble the old man not at all. He smiled down at Jack. His teeth were crooked, but white and strong. The smile was unexpectedly warm. “Good on you then,” he said, and stood aside so Jack could pass by on the pavement. Jack didn’t move, until the man made a sweeping gesture with his gnarled hand, indicating that the way was clear.

Jack was suddenly reluctant for the conversation to end. He went past and turned around, walking backwards to keep the old man in sight, and reached for something else to say. “I haven’t seen you around here before,” was all he could come up with.

“I expect you haven’t,” came the reply. The old man still stood at the entrance to the footpath. He seemed in no hurry to move. He looked amused as Jack continued to back away.

“Do you live here now?” Jack asked. He had to speak louder as he got further away.

“I might,” the old man responded. Jack couldn’t tell if he was avoiding an answer, or if he had only just that moment decided to consider taking up residence.

“Well if you do I’ll see you around,” Jack said. This was getting ridiculous. He turned around, set his face for home. But for some reason he couldn’t leave it at that.

“My name’s Jack Ganderley,” he called back. “What’s yours?”

“Smelt,” came the answer, as if from a long way away, and Jack spun around, looking back along the pavement to the footpath, which ran through open ground for at least a hundred yards before the trees of Chasemere Park closed in. Although the shadows were starting to gather and lengthen beneath their boughs, he could see clearly a long way into the wood.

There was no sign of the old man.

Jack was still puzzling over it  five minutes later as he slipped in through the front door and made for the stairs. Emilu was on her way down. She shook her head at him.

“Don’t bother. Old Applebum called.”

“Jack?” his mother’s voice floated in from the kitchen. “Is that you?”

Jack sighed. “Yes, mum. Coming.” He trooped after Emilu. She was wearing a green-and-purple polka-dotted scarf tied around the midriff of her otherwise quite ordinary pink jumper, and had a book tucked under her arm. A doll was clenched in her hand. The doll had once been quite glamorous, but was now wrapped in a selection of rubber bands that had originally held the post together. Emilu carried it by the hair.

Their mother was poring over a recipe book balanced precariously on a stand next to the cooker, frowning as she checked off ingredients.

“Star anise, ginger, cinnamon … there you are darling … mace, fenugreek.” She looked up, frowned in Emilu’s direction then focused on Jack. “Mr. Applebaum called, from school.”

“Yes, Em said.”

“Well …?”

Jack wondered over to the counter and eyed the ingredients in case anything might be edible. He recognised aubergine, tomatoes, chilli peppers and potatoes; the rest were a mystery. He dug in the biscuit barrel and came up with a chocolate digestive.

“Jack!”

“Yesthf?” through a mouthful of biscuit.

“I’ve already heard from Mr. Applebaum, now I want to hear from you. What happened?”

Jack swallowed and filled a glass with water from the tap.

“I didn’t get in a fight.”

“I really don’t like it when you start off with an excuse, Jack.” Emilu, now sitting at the kitchen table with the book open and the doll face down beside it, smirked at this.

“I’m not.” He took a drink. “I had to go see him because one of the teachers saw me and another boy and thought we were fighting. But we weren’t.”

“Then why did she think you were?”

Jack shrugged. “We were having a disagreement. Not a fight.”

“Then why didn’t you tell that to Mr. Applebaum?”

“If he’d asked, I would have.”

“Jack!”

“Honestly, mum. He talks to the teachers, he talks to you, he talks to us. Us talking to him is not really part of the plan.”

“You could have tried.”

“It wasn’t that big a deal. And anyway, if you try to explain anything to them it just makes them go on and on even more.” Emilu nodded vigorously in agreement.

“Jack you can’t just avoid talking to grown-ups because you think it’s going to be difficult.” Mrs. Ganderley sighed. Jack thought back to the old man on the pavement. There was a difficult old bugger, no question, but he hadn’t been able to stop talking to him.

“Who was he?” He jumped guiltily and looked around wildly at his mother. She was staring at him in frustration. “Honestly, Jack, I’m trying to have a conversation with you and you’re miles away. Who was he? The other boy?”

“Oh,” said Jack, relieved. “Cameron Carstairs.”

“Ooh!”

The Carstairs were probably the richest people in their small village, but they didn’t mingle much.  They lived in a big old house that had been in the Carstairs family for generations. Jack’s mum was an interior designer, and often talked about how much she would love to do it up. Jack knew she harboured a secret hope that one day fate would throw her and Ingrid Carstairs together – at the supermarket say, or the gym – and she’d get the commission.

Jack cleared his throat. His mother collected herself.

“Cameron.” She frowned. “I’ve heard … he’s a bit of a troublemaker isn’t he?”

Jack shrugged noncommitally. Emilu piped up from the table.  “He’s a bully.”

“He is?” Mrs. Ganderley looked anxious. “No, is he really? Are you being bullied, Jack?”

Jack snorted. “I’d like to see him try.”

“He does try.” Emilu again. Jack glared at her. “Shut up Em.”

Emilu ignored him. She had dropped a rubber band onto the open book to mark her place and was busy binding the doll into a diver’s pose, arms pointed straight up over her plastic head. She glanced up at their mother.

“He bullies lots of people and he tries to bully Jack sometimes but it doesn’t work which ticks him off so I guess that’s why he was trying to pick a fight with Jack but that didn’t work either.” She stopped and took several deep breaths. She looked over at Jack. “So I guess he’ll have to think of something else. Better watch out.”

Jack stared at Emilu in disbelief. She had just reeled off, without pause for consideration – let alone breath – the entire story of the day, what had led to it and where it was likely to lead to next. Jack didn’t know whether to admire his sister’s ability to cut through waffle and get to the point, or be furious with her for blurting out a bunch of stuff that his mother absolutely did not need to know.

Mrs. Ganderley gazed thoughtfully at her daughter. She, along with most other people, was hard pressed to know what to make of the stage Emilu seemed to be going through. She appeared to decide that appreciation was the most appropriate response at the moment.

“Thank you Em. That clears up a lot.” She turned her attention back to Jack. “I’m going to have a chat with your father, and then as far as I’m concerned that should be that. Unless you want us to go and talk to the Carstairs?” she said hopefully.

“No!” Jack and Emilu shouted in chorus. Emilu rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the doll. Jack shook his head. Sometimes it seemed like his mother didn’t understand anything.

“Mum. Trust me. That. Would. Not. Help.”

Mrs. Ganderley sighed and bent down to peer at the cookbook again. “Oh all right. It was just a thought. Homework?”

Jack had finished his maths homework and was halfway through English when he remembered the old man. Across from him Emilu was working through some extra problems at the back of the textbook, the kind no one ever did unless they were Emilu. She had brought the doll’s bound arms down to touch the tip of its legs, forming a triangle which she glanced at thoughtfully from time to time, turning it to look at the angles.  The kitchen had filled with a delightful tomatoey smell; their mother was keeping an eye on the oven, but had replaced the cookbook with a furniture catalogue and spread swatches of fabric and bits of paper with paint colours on the counter.

“Mum,” said Jack.

“Hmm?” said Mrs. Ganderley.

“Has anyone new moved into the village?”

She looked up at that, startled. “What, really? No. Have they?”

Jack and Emilu burst into laughter. Mrs. Ganderley collected herself.

“Not as far as I know. Why?”

“I saw someone by the park. He said something that made me think maybe he lives here now.”

“Well if he does he’ll be in the school, won’t he?”

Jack blinked at this in bemusement until the penny dropped.

“Not a kid. A grown up. Kind of old and strange-looking.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.” The penny dropped for Mrs. Ganderley. “You were talking to an old strange man in the park?”

“Not in the park. And not really talking. He just, you know.” Jack shrugged elaborately. “Seemed interesting.”

© Stephanie Saulter 2011

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Regeneration is now out in the US! It joins Gemsigns and Binary, already available throughout the English-speaking world. I like to think they're literary science fiction, but you can make your own mind up. This is where I talk about what I'm working on, ask your opinion, and generally think out loud.

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