I used to draw little mushroom clouds on everything. In notepads, doodling on the back of schoolbooks: central updraft, billowing dustcloud, ring around the column for decoration. In truth, they often looked more like a kidney bean on a knife. The iconised symbol of an unconquerable threat, a way of compensating for crying myself to sleep at the age of nine because I’d only get four minutes to say goodbye to everyone I loved.
Growing up with the new cold war in the early 1980s I knew about the nuclear holocaust before I learned about the holocaust. I marched to Dollis Hill carrying a homemade cruise missile (again, a highly inaccurate representation, more of a space shuttle). I wore a CND badge, distributed the local CND newsletters, drew more little mushroom clouds on everything to hand.
The threat of annihilation is now reduced to nostalgia, an unlucky possibility that didn’t happen. Nuclear bombs belong with rubiks cubes and disco music. Life on the planet continues. Other people are out to get us in other ways now. Whenever I remember my old school, the thought that immediately follows is how much I’d like to drop a nuclear bomb on it.
I didn’t believe in God at the age of nine, and so my best friend was a Jehovah’s Witness. We had ourselves excused from the school assembly’s cosy prayers and parables on the grounds of our religious consciences, and the right to muck around in an empty classroom for twenty minutes while all everyone else took the notices and instructions.
(For the Catholic kids generic Protestantism was good enough for four days of the week, but on Friday their priest came to give them special instruction. ‘Who made you, if it wasn’t God?’ asked the other kids in the playground, crowding round. ‘My mum and dad.’ ‘And who made them?’ ‘Their mum and dad.’ And so on. Evolution! I was a new atheist well before New Atheism, anticipating also the required levels of emotional maturity and stoic victimhood.)
Robert and I didn’t talk about God. We constructed an obstacle course of chairs and desks leading in a circuit around the classroom, and chased each other round it. I fell off a chair and hit my head. I bled, I had to go to hospital, and I Iearned what the word concussion’ meant. There was the usual swearing at the headmaster. I didn’t have to go back into assembly the next week, they just had to keep an eye on me instead.
We drove for several hours, using a map that we later discovered to be unsuitable for actual navigation. We drove to where we’d heard the lights would be, we drove to where others had seen them, we drove to where we thought the air would be clearest and the view brightest. Tantalising glimpses through the car windows aside, we saw nothing.
We gave up, and pulled over next to a lava field covered in snow. The cracked black muffin-top surface was levelled with white: as you walked forward one leg might sink an inch deep into the snow, the other leg a foot deep. We ran, played and lay in the snow, disappointed but happy.
And then as if to reward our patience, they happened. Soft green and yellow sand, drawing lines and patterns in the sky. Soundless swirls above and ahead, particles from space not flying fast like meteorites but tumbling slowly out of the heavens in gentle cascades. Just for us.
Comparing notes later we realised that we had all seen different things. Different patterns, different shapes, different colours. Mark’s had been monochrome. No narrative held our experience of the lights themselves together; only the story of the night, where we had been to, where we ended up, where we parked the car.
In a small nationalist propaganda shop on a Bilbao backstreet, she sold me the cuntiest possible map of Europe. It was one in which the dreams of all Europe’s tiny nations had been realised, a patchwork of independencies, as if the continent had been limned with a Woodrow Wilson paintbrush. Every former nation and principality its own colour, its own borders. In the UK, not only Northumberland and Cornwall had been separated, but even the Isle of Wight had acquired proto-national status. It was a Europe no more than the sum of its parts.
And when she realised that I didn’t even speak Spanish, let alone Basque, she doubled the price.
The impossibility, in the year 1991, of liking music made with guitars. You can have all your 4AD albums, your My Bloody Valentines and Sonic Youths, but each album as it comes out already belongs in some boring rockumentary on BBC2. Loveable, but loveless. The new music is exciting, but it belongs to other people. Not for the longhairs, not for kids like you.
There’s an indie day, a reggae day and a rave day. Split your differences, find the cash, and go to both. The guitars make you soar inside, but it’s just haircut after haircut, and in the end all the same. The DJs speak to something deeper, and you try to figure out a pretentious conceit about Nietzschean music in your head while you’re listening to it, but you can’t escape the fact that people are just here to have fun. When it’s over, you sit under the bridge with some mates and smoke a joint. As the students wander in ones and twos past you and back to their campus residences, Vindy calls out at each one, ‘Didn’t pull? Never mind!’
The dense and leafy bushes ran between the path and the golf course. While my mother pushed my baby brother along in the pram which would later cater to unsold piles of the revolutionary paper, I ran in and out, hiding and then reappearing, spying and catching up. Nobody was playing golf on the other side.
Like me, the man was hiding in the bushes. Crouching down. He said hello. Is that your mum down there, he asked. The one with the big…. and he cupped his hands to his chest. I ran out and down again, back to the pram. I told my mother I’d met a man in the bushes. Later she said that I said that he’d given me a funny kiss.
When the boy’s feeling snippy we go to the playground at the nicer park, because I care less if he gets into fights there. Middle-class parents perform a curious waltz of apology in these circumstances: the kid who can say sorry more politely is the kid who wins. These are the children of people who run the world with their mouths, not their fists.
At the fire engine, a parent with an expatriate accent dispassionately watches my child and his tussle over a steering wheel. ‘I’m not intervening,’ he says, ‘I’m letting him learn strategies to get what he wants without violence.’ His boy shouts and continues to grab at the wheel, confident that his dad wants him to win in life.
The layout of the house is interesting: a two-up/two-down which has been rescued from its own modesty by people with ambition. The agent compares its value favourably to others less smiled-upon in the same street .
The decor is in good taste: feature walls, furniture in good strong colours and inoffensive art. The kitchen has an impressive gas cooker and a table high enough for adults to enjoy a dinner party. There are two bathrooms.
The garden is small and paved, but wooden pallets have been carefully upended into sharply terraced planters. But like curricula that teach for exams, it feels like a house that has been designed for its own photographs. The cupboards reveal only the sensible arrangement of nice things. There is nothing to this home but its floorplan.
The agent indicates amenability to offers: the owners are a couple no longer, and a quick sale is desirable. And something about the house itself suddenly makes it obvious. Even such good taste, such obvious desirability, could not keep two such people as made this house from the hollowness of each other.
The first time I bit into a glass I just wanted to know if I could: it was cold and hard and wouldn’t bend to my mouth the way a plastic beaker did. I pressed my teeth harder and harder into it until all at once it shattered: my mouth was full of milk and blood and fragments of glass and then my mother’s fingers and fuss all around.
For the second time I had to wait until I was at an elderly relative’s house: no beakers. I was trusted with glass and this time it was a compulsion. I knew I shouldn’t, but the glass was hard in my mouth and I wondered if I could hold it fast with my teeth short of breaking and I couldn’t. Juice and glass and fuss and apologies on my behalf again.
The third time I did it, they knew there was something wrong with me.
When you were about thirteen, there was an open day at school & your mum came with you & some of the other kids from your year were there. You nodded at this kid from your class because he was looking at you & your mum asked who he was & so you had to introduce him & what you didn’t tell her was that this kid didn’t like you & beat you up sometimes. While your mum was saying hello to him he was giving you this look & you knew that when you went in the next day he would already be telling all the other kids how you said hello to him & your mum said hello to him like you knew him, like he liked you & they’d all look at you and tell you your shirt still smelled & maybe later they’d beat you up again.