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by Christopher Fowler

    They keep asking me why I did it.
     I try to tell them, but they’re not listening.
     They talk reasonably, pleasantly, and are politely silent as I reply. They hear, but they’re not listening. The sheets of paper on the desk before me are filled with details of my case, but the wrong ones. They describe what happened, but not why. I stare at the words which form my admission of guilt. Oh, I’m guilty, I don’t deny that. The boy was seventeen, eighteen? No, I had never seen him before. He was just passing me on the street, bouncing on his trainers with an angry swagger. I stuck the knife into his nylon jacket and he fell to his knees in shocked silence. I stabbed him over a hundred and seventy times. I stabbed him until there was nothing solid left to stab. Then, dripping from head to foot with his blood, I waited at the kerb until someone came to bring me here.

     'Yes, I agree,' perusing the pages. 'This is exactly what happened.'
     'You know what you did?' asks one of the incredulous cops.
     'Certainly. Let me try to explain why.' I’m handcuffed, so they can safely let me use the biro. I want to write this down in my own hand.

     A dead, hot day in mid-July. The air is countrified, dandelion spores rising gently on warm thermals, the lazy drone of a beetle alighting on dust-dulled hedge leaves. A suburban summertime, where the South London solstice settles in a sleepy yellow blanket over still front gardens.

     Westerdale Road has seashells cemented in its front garden walls. It is the same as the other roads in the area, and yet each has a distinct identity. Farmdale Road houses a Victorian parish hall that provides a meeting place for scouts and cubs, and hosts Sunday School classes for reluctant children. Ormiston Crescent is a silent L-shaped street populated by bad-tempered old widows who appear in their doorways at the sound of a football being kicked against a wall.

     Like all of these streets, Westerdale Road has its characters. The deaf couple whose pond freezes over every winter, so that they have to thaw their goldfish from a block of ice in a tin bath beside the fire. The old lady who keeps stuffed cats on her sideboard. Some of the houses have Anderson shelters in their gardens, converted to tool-sheds in time of peace or used to keep chickens, their distinctive sound and smell exciting the neighbourhood cats. Further along the street is a 'simple' man who sits on his front step smiling inanely in the bright sunlight.

     The road backs onto Westcombe Hill. Odd how so many street names conjure pastoral imagery; 'Combedale Road', 'Mycenae Road'. Its houses form alleyways at their rear, a Victorian remnant my mother vaguely disapproves of, for here there is a subtle hierarchy. These backs of houses are populated by the shop owners of Westcombe Hill, and the cramped alley creates an enforced neighbourliness that she sees as 'common'. We at number 35 have a garden. We do not live above shops. The fact that we are relatively poor while they thrive (purchasing luxury items like television sets and cars) has nothing to do with it.

     Noon. The silent sunlight scorches the streets, and everyone knows their place. Housewives are deep within their little terraced houses, polishing sideboards, making jellies, busying themselves in cool shadowed rooms. Their men are at work, mopping their brows in council offices, patrolling machine room floors, filling out paperwork in dusty bank chambers. Their children are all at school reciting their tables, catching beanbags, and in the break following lunch there is a special treat; the teacher unlocks a paddock behind the playground of Invicta Infants, and here is a haven from the hot concrete, a small square meadow of cropped emerald grass hemmed in with chicken-wire. Here we are allowed to lie on our stomachs reading comics, passing them back and forth between us. It is peaceful, warm and quiet (the teachers do not tolerate the vulgarity of noise) and although we are in another suburban street, it feels like the heart of the countryside.

     What was it this area possessed to make it so special, so irreplaceable and precious? A few roads, a pond behind a wall where sticklebacks were trapped in jars and dragonflies skimmed the oily water, a railway line with a narrow pedestrian tunnel beneath it, a station of nicotine-coloured wood and rows of green tin lamps along the platform. Some odd shops; a perpetually deserted furniture showroom, damp and dark, its proprietor standing ever-hopefully at the door, a model railway centre with a brass-edged penny slot cut in the window to make the trains go around, a tobacconist selling sweets from large jars, a rack of Ellisdon's Jokes on a stand, none of them quite living up to their packet descriptions - what modern child would understand the pleasure of 'Fake Soot'?, a chemist with apothecary bottles filled with coloured water and a scale machine, green and chrome with a wicker weighing basket, a bakery window filled with pink and white sugar mice, iced rounds, meringues and Battenburg cake. An advertisement painted on a wall, for varnish remover of some kind, depicting a housewife happily pouring boiling water from a kettle onto a shiny dining room table. Cinema posters under wire. A hardware shop with tin baths hanging either side of the door.

     This confluence of roads and railway lines is bordered by an iron bridge and an embankment filled with white trumpet-flowered vines, and populated by families with forgotten children's names; Laurence, Percy, Pauline, Albert, Wendy, Sidney. No middle-class aspirations here, just the stillness of summer, the faint drone of insects, bees landing on flowerbeds in the police station garden, tortoises and chickens sheltering from the heat beneath bushes, cats asleep in shop windows with yellow acetate sunscreens, and life being lived, a dull, sensible kind of life, unfolding like a flower, the day loosening as slowly as a clockspring - an implacable state which we, as children, thought would never change, but which is now lost so totally, so far beyond reach that it might have occurred before Isis ruled the Nile. The sands have shifted now, hiding the contours of my happiness. I look for the patterns that shaped my life and find only tarmac, concrete and steel, the dead carapace of something lost to all but the mind's eye.

     To look back on those times of sunset parklands, fathers carrying glasses of beer into the street on tin trays, mothers calling to one another across backyard fences, is to glimpse a world as yet unaltered by the spending power of teenagers. A post war period that lasted less than fifteen years. Beeching closed the branch lines, road planners cut the street in half, smashed down the houses, constructed a vast swathe of concrete through the hill, the roads, the shops, the railway, the gardens, and like a bush cut through at the root, everything died.

     Shops were boarded up. Families were relocated. Oil-drenched vibrations pulse the once-still air. Scraps remain; a few houses, a closed shop, a patch of pavement where once I stood with my face to the sun. The great motorway which replaced the area is virtually unused, a concrete landing gravestone for a generation. Nostalgia sweetens the past, but this is how it really was. And - so long as one person is alive to remember - how it remains. Life had been good and kind and constant.

     I watched the destruction of everything I had faith in. The corruption of everything innocent. The tainting of everything pure. The degeneration into chaos of everything stable. This is how it is for most people of my age. My generation has seen more changes than any other. Most of its members never reveal their disgust, their horror, their misery. They brick it up, hide it away, lie down and die. I decided not to do that.

     I didn’t know the boy. I barely saw his face. Adulthood asks us to store away the past and act with maturity, but the present is filled with chaos. I’ve grown up. I’m fitting into my time. I’m part of the new anarchy. I’m a modern man. I can do anything. And if they say I am mad, even better; I can be a child again. Childhood has endless sparkling expectations and a smile as wide as a summer night.

     This is what I write. I killed because I wanted something back. Memory recaptures the sensation, words hold it forever on the page, but the deed -

     Albert Camus said that a man’s work is nothing but the long journey to recover the first two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart.

     I've come home.

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© 1998 Christopher Fowler
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This story is  published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the author.
This excerpt may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

Book ordering for Christopher Fowler's novels available through Internet Bookshop and  Amazon   (See BR review of Personal Demons and Disturbia)

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