Exciting and original... If only all 'foreigner in Japan' novels were this good – The Japan Times
Excellent... Hogg writes with a mesmeric quality – The Big Issue
An intelligent, gripping and stylish love story set against a beautifully drawn contemporary Japan – Best Novels of 2015, The Observer
A fine novel – Sebastian Faulks
All the ingredients of classic noir – The Independent
An engaging and pacy plot with entrancing writing in this expertly told dark fable of modern Japan – The Bookseller
An atmospheric noir thriller – Kirkus Reviews
My novel of the year. An unforgettable portrait of the Japanese capital – Tom Holland, The Evening Standard
Social psychologist Ben Monroe has returned to Tokyo after a failed marriage, determined to seek out his former lover Kozue. His estranged teenage daughter Mazzy reluctantly flies from California to join him. On the flight she meets a young Japanese man, Koji, a cult survivor, who tells her the story of the luminous night princess Kaguya, a powerful tale of beauty and obsession. As Ben delves deeper into the underworld in search of Kozue, Mazzy and Koji are compelled to follow, and their four lives dangerously intersect as past and present collide.
Order via Amazon.
Photo by Lee Chapman
For Le Ly
We were driving back from San Diego, through one of those spectacular Pacific sunsets where the emblazoned clouds streak above the highway, like a fire to end the world so beautiful that you might be happy to be consumed by such gilded flames.
“You not need to write this down?”
Kim Cuc had just started telling me something about a water buffalo toiling in a rice paddy.
“I remember what I need.”
She took her eyes off the highway. “Don't you forget.”
“Kim Cuc,” I shouted, pointing through the windshield. She was two inches from rear ending a silver Lexus.
A young farmer stopped to take a rest from ploughing his rice paddy. He grazed his water buffalo along the banks of the field and sat down in the shade of a banana tree to eat his lunch. The water buffalo was quietly chewing grass and chasing away flies with powerful swings of its huge head, when a tiger sprang out from behind the bushes. The water buffalo jumped back and lowered its horns, ready to fight for its life.
I'd left my notebook in a barn perched above Escondido. This was where I slept and wrote, hired by Kim Cuc to transcribe the ancient fables of Vietnam from a desk on a Californian hilltop. I was housesitting in Manhattan when I saw the wanted ad for 'A hard working writer with interest in folk tales and Vietnam.' Recently back from researching a Tokyo tour guide, I was hoping for something more permanent, a staff job with a travel magazine, or even a press junket writing up a Caribbean cruise, so I put off the call for a day.
When thick snow wafted in from the sky, and the city dropped a fine through the letterbox because I hadn't cleared my patch of sidewalk, I dialled the California number. “This Kim Cuc,” she answered, waiting for my pitch once I said I'd seen the ad. “So what make you qualified?”
I introduced myself as a travel writer with experience in south east Asia, that I'd been to Vietnam a few years back. She listened as I told her about my love for folk tales. Before I had chance to ask any questions she told me that she'd fought in the war but wanted to tell stories from a time, “long before the Americans got there.”
I wasn't sure I was the man for the job, but I had four hundred dollars left to live my American dream, and the offer of a flight to LA, food and board, along with the prospective cut on any advance from a publisher, put me on that plane.
“Wait,” cried the tiger, “I'm not here to attack you, I just want to ask you a question.” The water buffalo stood its ground, and the tiger said again, “I just want to have something explained. I watch you toil in the fields for that man every day, that same man who has neither great strength nor sharp vision, nor even a keen sense of smell. You're stronger, ten times heavier than he and hardened to heavy labour, yet he keeps you in chains for his profit and rules you. Please tell me, what is the secret of his magic power?”
Curled under a wool blanket on a fold-out sofa bed, the first night on the hill was frightening. Not because of the yipping coyotes, or the rattlers, scorpions, tarantulas and mountain lions rumoured to pad through the yard. I was terrified of the silence, the time and space that had so suddenly opened up and shrunk me. The day I flew to LA, I'd woken in the West Village, then caught a ride to JFK with a Mexican friend who was sitting out a dead marriage for a Green Card.
“I'm jealous, bro. Freezing my ass off while you get to catch some rays.”
I reminded him I was working.
“Tapping a keyboard.” He laughed, said something in Spanish. “Come with me and dig that frozen mud.”
“I've done my time on building sites.”
“In snow like this? We'll be hearing about polar bears on Fifth Avenue.”
If I looked up from my computer in the barn I could see the ocean. North, and the faint outline of Mount Baldy hovered on the distance. South, I guessed there was a paragliding club because toy figures dangled in the thermals, the silk chutes rising like flakes of ash. Apart from Kim Cuc, these flying stick men would be the only people I saw before noon. But this was one reason the word count was in the thousands. And as I was being fed and housed to write for someone else, bread and shelter was good motivation. Not that I needed it with Kim Cuc rapping on my door every morning.
“I awake half the night.”
Her English was pretty choppy, and that was why I had a the job. But she never failed to communicate.
“My grandmother ghost come to my dream. She tell me another story.”
Her dead relatives woke her daily. If it was light enough she'd hoe the dusty soil outside her little house, planting vegetables and pruning, gardening until the sun came up.
“This should be the man job, but you writing, and my boys, they gone.”
Her two sons were married off, living in cities that she complained she had to fly to when she wanted to see them.
“In Vietnam, the daughter in-law, she come and take care of the mother. But who do that for me?”
Pictures lined the walls of her living room. Photos of her sons on high school football teams, graduating from college, then getting married to golden haired American women. Both the boys had grown into handsome young men, a mix of the almost feline, high cheekbones of their mother, and the square jaw and strong nose of a Caucasian father I couldn't find on the crowded walls. But beneath these framed snapshots I did see the cracked and faded portraits of her parents, black and white photos of her late mother and father, crumpled and precious pictures she would honour with burning incense.
“To be honest,” said the buffalo, “I don’t know anything about a magic power, only that I shall never be free because of something he has called ‘Wisdom.’”
I'd watched the weather change from the plane window, swirls of cloud above the mid-west, to scars of desert road and dusty peaks, a landscape more atlas than earth, the breadth of America. I half expected to see the state borders drawn in, names of towns and rivers. Then I touched down in LA and met a woman who once stole guns and set booby traps for the Viet Cong.
“Wisdom?” said the tiger. “I must ask him about that. If I could get this wisdom I would have even greater power over the other animals. Instead of having to hide and spring on them to get my dinner, I could simply order them to keep still.” The tiger thought about this for a moment then smiled. “I could choose the most delicious animal any time I wanted.”
My only real experience of Vietnam was two humid days in Da Nang. I'd arrived by ship, floating up an iridescent green channel between humps of iridescent green hills. And all the stereotypes were represented. The fishermen in conical reed hats, rice paddies and water buffalo. Even the pretty girls in silk dresses riding sputtering rickshaws. Usually I'd walk a city and undo the guidebook portraits, but I was still sweating out some fever I'd picked up in Shanghai, and took a motorbike taxi out to the Ho Chi Minh Museum where each exhibit is dedicated to a different massacre at the hands of the Americans.
So a motorbike taxi, A Short History of US War Crimes, shots of velvety coffee sweetened and creamed with condensed milk, a marketplace where I bought nuggets of dried banana and pirate DVDs, along with a drunken night out at a beach bar turning down marijuana and prostitutes was all the experience I had against the weight of newsreels, Platoon, Deerhunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Good Morning Vietnam and Apocalypse Now.
“All dreams,” Kim Cuc had snapped when I'd asked her what she thought of Hollywood's take on the war. “You can't smell a dead body at the cinema.”
Between the fables, river dragons with golden axes, men turned to lizards, the warring lords of the mountains and the sea who fought for the hand of a beautiful princess, and who still fight now, bringing lightning, rain and floods to Vietnam every summer, Kim Cuc talked about soldiers razing villages.
“Just you try and imagine, these giant men come through your house with the flame thrower.”
But on a California hilltop, the aromas of sage and buckwheat blowing through the screen windows, the horrors of a war I knew from TV screens and film sets was as grounded as one of her miraculous folk tales.
“Well!” replied the startled buffalo. “Why don't you ask the man about his wisdom?”
“I might just do that,” answered the tiger, already walking over to the young farmer.
Kim Cuc would come down the hill with her notepad, stepping around the rabbits that had got so used to her footsteps on the dusty path that they'd nonchalantly carry on chewing grass. “Morning, rabbits.” They'd twitch their noses, then she'd bang open the barn door and shout up the stairs to where I slept on the lumpy sofa-bed, laid out between her assortment of Buddha statues. “You awake? I got another one.”
Before the sun burned off the ocean fog, the barn would float as if it were some wooden boat adrift on a sea of mist. Driving back from the Vietnamese store in town, the trunk filled with green leaf vegetables, baby bok choy, lemon grass, mint, cilantro and French coffee, we saw a stray bank of fog sloping across the road.
“He look for the ocean.” Kim Cuc had seen it too.
It had appeared like the ghost of a whale, swimming down the hillside back to the Pacific.
Maybe it was all that thinking about fables and dead ancestors, but she saw the supernatural in almost everything. “You see a rattler, you leave him alone.”
This was her warning about any snakes I might disturb on my morning runs.
“The snake, he like a god. This farmer in my village famous for killing the snake. My grandmother warn him, say to him, 'They come back and get you!'”
The story finishes with a snake dropping from the branch of tree and biting the farmer's neck.
“And this no fairy tale, this true.”
How much she believed from this mythical world I was never sure. But who was I to challenge a woman who'd already lived through such tragedies that a my own life's trials and tribulations seemed like a pantomime. From brothers lost in clouds of napalm, to a father tortured by boys from his own village.
“Excuse me, Sir,” the tiger politely began. “Although I am big, strong and quick, and can eat any animal I wish, I've heard you have something called 'wisdom' that allows you to rule over the animals. If I also had this wisdom it would make my daily hunt for food much easier. Do you have any you could spare?”
When she'd picked me up from the airport, we'd driven back to Escondido with a chanting Buddhist monk in the cassette player. “Close your eyes and listen.” She veered a couple of lanes trying to find the volume dial. “This a traditional Vietnamese prayer.”
I understood and respected the worship of her parents, her mother and father, those perished brothers. Though I found it hard to see the animal kingdom around the barn populated with the reincarnated. Was I to believe dead villagers of the Vietnam War had been killed by Americans then punished by rebirth in the form of a scrawny coyote?
And then there was the psychic. We drove out to a gated community in Del Mar where each house looked like a showroom. Spotlights in sprinkled lawns, an artificial lake. I was introduced to a man married to a Japanese woman. He was a professional 'reader.' I creased out a smile and sat on a faux leather sofa while he took a pencil and shaded over her name written on a pad. He closed his eyes and sketched. When he opened them he looked at his scribble and foretold that, “a change was coming.”
“That the book we gonna sell,” Kim Cuc chirped.
Though I soon found out that her 'agent' was more of a friend and had yet to even hear about the fables, let alone commission the idea.
“Unfortunately,” replied the farmer, “I left my wisdom at home today. But if you like I can go and fetch it for you.”
The tiger was delighted with his answer, and couldn’t wait for the farmer’s return. “May I accompany you to your house, so we can get the wisdom together?”
“No,” the farmer quickly replied. “If the villagers see you they'll get scared and kill you. Wait here until I come back.”
When we got the verdict that a collection of Vietnamese folk stories wouldn't sell, and that even if it was packaged as a gift book the advance would be no more than pin money, Kim Cuc first cursed America for our failure.
“She want me to write book about cooking. How to make spring roll.”
We were on the highway, as you often are when things happen in California, and the angrier she got, the faster she drove. “Maybe I should write guidebook on how fat American man get pretty little Asian wife.”
We were touching a hundred.
“Oh, you bet publisher like that.”
I saw owl faced passengers watch us with gaping mouths as we blasted along the inside lane.
“Kim Cuc,” I pleaded. “Slow down.”
But she was tutting, clicking her lips. “How old America? Few hundred years? A baby. Vietnam is thousands of years old. We the wise man in the village. Americans need The Wisdom of the Dragon. If they know so much then why they so unhappy?”
I was watching the speedometer, and the road.
“I got friends who eat Valium like candy.”
The farmer took a few steps towards his house before stopping and turning around to speak with the tiger again. “I’m sure you're very honest, but I'm a little worried that you may get hungry while I'm gone and eat my water buffalo. I have great need of it in my daily work, and can't afford to have it eaten by a tiger. If you agree, I'll tie you to a tree, so I won’t have to worry about my water buffalo becoming a snack.”
“You took the wrong exit, Kim Cuc.”
She'd swung us off the highway, and barely slowed down on the exit ramp.
“I know where I go. Don't you worry.”
I wasn't so sure. Coming back from LA she'd scrambled the Camp Pendleton sentries by accelerating up the entranceway.
“We are going back to Escondido?”
“You think I forget where I live?” she snapped. “That I some crazy old lady who lose her mind.”
The meeting with her agent had changed things between us. I'd felt like family at one point. The second week in the barn I'd gotten flu, and Kim Cuc had ferried spicy broths from her house to my bed, puffed up my pillow, and touched my forehead with the back of her hand as if I were a third son. Not now. She'd been hoping for an advance, that we'd walk into her agent's office with a book and waltz back out with a cheque to cash. She was hoping that the psychic's prediction of 'a change' was a mortgage repayment, an instalment to keep the repo man from her door.
The tiger badly wanted this mysterious wisdom, and was willing to agree to almost anything, allowing the farmer to pass ropes around his body and tie him to the trunk of a tree.
A short way from the exit ramp was a used car lot. Next to this was a junk yard filled with towers of flattened wrecks piled in teetering stacks. You could imagine the older models in the dealership collecting dust and trying not to notice the hydraulic crusher just over the fence.
Suddenly Kim Cuc swung a left and cut down a road between the auto orphanage and auto graveyard.
We bumped along a potholed gravel track, bouncing through oily black puddles even though I hadn't seen a drop of rain in a month. When the road ran out in a scruffy stand of bushes she stopped and cut the engine.
But the farmer was no fool. He went home and gathered a bundle of dry straw. When he got back to the tree, he placed the straw under the tiger and set it on fire.
She stared through the windshield. The arcs of the wipers had cleared two semi-circles from the spatter of dead bugs. Even though she'd parked some way back from the freeway, the eighteen wheel rigs trembled the car as they juddered past.
“Kim Cuc,” I began. Then she started talking in Vietnamese. Apart from how to say thank you, I didn't know another word. “Kim Cuc.”
She stopped, tutted again, and asked, “Why just here?” She loosely pointed at the shattered cars in the yard, the dealership forecourt rippling with multi-coloured bunting strung from the razor wire fencing. “Such an ugly, lonely place.”
Before she explained, I knew who she was talking about. I'd been sorting through some of her old books and magazines, National Geographic features on Vietnamese river deltas, snippets of war reportage cut from yellowing newspapers, when some bleached Polaroids fell from the pages of GI novelist Tim O'Brien's collection, The Things They Carried. The first couple I picked up were snapshots of a man in a park, boys on his shoulders. It was obvious they were his sons. Her sons.
“Behold my wisdom!” he shouted as the flames engulfed the tiger and burned him fiercely.
The final photo was a picture of him asleep. His calm face glowing, serene. And in this photo you could see the face of his youngest son, the man he would grow into. When I went to slip them back between the pages they'd fallen from, I realised he wasn't asleep. Behind his head I could make out that kind of quilting they line coffins with.
The tiger roared so loud that the other trees trembled with the sound of his cries.
He'd driven down this track, parked, run a hose from the exhaust, then wound up the window and waited for the fumes to fill the car.
Finally, the fire burned through the ropes and the tiger bounded away into the forest, howling with pain.
Kim Cuc stared through the bug-smeared windshield, onto the freeway glowing with headlights, tail lights.
“He see so much.” She took a bunched tissue from her sleeve and wiped her nose. “So much.”
I knew that her husband had been a pilot, that he may well have torched fields and trees where her very own brothers had been hiding.
“But he so romantic. Such a gentleman.”
They'd met in Da Nang, married, and got on a airliner to California. Much more than this I didn't know.
“And he would've loved the book about old Vietnam stories.” She was sniffing, shaking her head, almost angry. “When he wake up in night, sweating, shouting, crazy things, he say to me like a little boy, he say, 'Tell me a story, Kim Cuc. Tell me about the dragon. Or the tiger.”
On the freeway below, traffic pulsed, the red and white lights flowing in opposite directions.
“'The tiger story,' he say to me. 'Tell me how the tiger get his stripes.'”
In time his wounds healed, but he was forever scarred with the long black stripes of the burning ropes that had scorched his skin.
HOW THE TIGER GOT ITS STRIPES won the 2009 Raymond Carver Editor's Choice Award
A former Leicestershire CCC youth player, Nicholas Hogg is a founder of the revived Authors Cricket Club, a team of cricketing writers. As well as playing fixtures across England, the Authors have been on several overseas tours. You can read Nicholas Hogg's report of their 2014 trip to Sri Lanka in his column at ESPN Cricinfo, and about his appearance at the Words & Wickets festival in the BBC News Magazine.
Nominated for the MCC and Cricket Society Book of the Year, The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon, is published by Bloomsbury.
A wonderful celebration of the best of games - Sir Michael Parkinson
The Authors' search for the grail should fascinate and amuse anyone with a love for the game - Daily Telegraph
Funny, tender, absorbing and full of delightful surprises - Michael Simkins
Every essay lyrically evokes the still paradise of summer, the beauty of cricket and why the game matters so much - Duncan Hamilton
Most cricket authors are better at cricket than writing. Reversing this principle is a revelation - Simon Barnes
A gem of diverse, entertaining prose from a variety of exceptional wordsmiths - All Out Cricket
Show Me the Sky was nominated for the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
An assured and gripping debut - BBC Radio 3
Well researched and exciting... Nicholas Hogg shows that he is a fine storyteller - Waterstone's
His subtle and clever novel weaves together five different narrative strands... plotted so artfully - Big Issue
Hogg performs a full range of literary circus feats - Adelaide Advertiser
Time is running out for Inspector James Dent. On the trail of missing singer Billy K, his team has exhausted every lead. The investigation has cost Dent his marriage, his home and possibly his job. All he has left is a copy of Show Me the Sky - the book Billy was reading when he vanished. With only the clothes on his back, Dent himself disappears. From the love letter of a motorcyclist stranded in central Australia, to the seedy streets and brothels of Mombasa, Dent begins to wonder if he is a trailing a man, a ghost, or himself.
I was ten. A gun was still a toy, a plastic mould or a pointed finger, the feigned death of a friend. We played Cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys. Then my father gave me a rifle.
He made me carry it unloaded for months. If I laid it down on wet grass, let the brilliant sheen of the barrel dim, or God forbid swung the muzzle at anything other than the dirt before my feet, then he'd stop and crouch. I can hear him now, talking, quietly lecturing on the engineering of a bullet. How soft our flesh has evolved in world of sharp edges.
I listened to every word, a scolding or not. I only saw him when he flew from Washington to stalk deer with me, his only son. We camped and grilled burgers under glittering constellations. I was allowed one sip from his silver flask before getting into my sleeping bag and hearing his Navy stories.
He also told me how some men hated the President, that a man on a rooftop with a steady arm and straight barrel could put a hole in Reagan as big as a fist. “Clench it, boy,” he'd say, pressing it to my chest.
The first time I saw him at work was on TV. He was opening the limousine door for Nancy. I remember how she neither looked at him nor thanked him. He was invisible. I was probably the only person in the world who could see him. While Nancy pranced and smiled like a show poodle my father readied to catch a bullet for her.
“A man is his actions,” he told me more than once. “Not his words.”
If this is so, did I become who I am the day he handed me a bullet?
Or the day he caught one?
I loaded the round, felt a tremble in my chest. A young doe was drinking from a rock pool. Father crouched and pointed. My heart beat in my mouth, and I crawled onto the bluff and aimed. When my elbow wobbled he reached out and held it between his finger and thumb. Then I fired. The shot peeled flesh from her hind leg and zipped into the trees. She vanished in puff of cordite. I scrabbled down the ledge and followed a trail of blood-flecked leaves.
I felt chased, my father at my heels. I found the doe standing on the shore, her blood diluting in the shallows. I watched her lungs expand and saw the effort for breath. Her back legs buckled and she slumped into the water. She tilted her head to the sky and made such a terrible sound of grief that I still wake now with the echo in my dream.
When he crashed through the trees she jerked to her feet. Then fell again. My father came upon the scene like a man disturbing two lovers.
I pulled the trigger. The report ricocheted from bank to bank, father to son. The bullet burst her like a football, and life went slack. She flopped into the river. My father pulled her ashore and smeared blood across my cheek.
I was terrified. I'd killed, for the first, and last time.
A week later I saw him on TV. It was the only news item, the footage played over and over. Reagan grinning, walking out of the Hilton and waving, a woman shouting, “Mr President,” and then my father turning to the camera. You see his whole face, right there. A face that is now my face.
Then you hear the firecracker snap of John Hinckley's pistol. Six shots. The third hits my father in the gut and lifts him off his feet. NBC paused the moment, the panic of falling bodies. A man and a bullet in mid-air.
I already knew what a gun did from that distance. How he'd come to ground like a burst ball, a shot deer.
Nicholas Hogg's FATHER AND GUN was part of the Photo Stories exhibition at Saatchi & Saatchi
Photograph by Kevin Horan
I am standing in line to see a corpse.
His face hangs on the gates
of The Forbidden City,
and if I hold his stare and pause,
the people behind
stop, and politely ask me to move along.
Tiananmen Square is a blaze of sun
and specks of kites, rows of tourists
waiting their turn. We will be bodies
filing past a body.
The police have checked our camera,
and the memory of Mao
is a glance through glass under watching guards,
a waxen ghost in a see-through case.
In the souvenir shop, still chilled
from the air of preservation,
you can remember with mugs and pens,
hats and caps, a musical lighter that plays
March of the Volunteers – not the TV second of a man
coming home from work with his sleeves
halting tanks with a bagful of shopping.
MAO was animated for the Berlin Poetry Film Festival
Today is my birthday. I point the pistol I’ve been given as a present from the van window. I laugh and point at the head of a man who’s pulled up at the lights next to me. He thinks I’m going to kill him. He doesn’t see the plastic Sheriff’s badge on my luminous vest, or the plastic handcuffs I’ve hooked on the belt loop of my orange work trousers. He screeches through the red light, swerving traffic onto the hard shoulder.
I laugh, guiltily, turning twenty-four in a beaten up transit van.
Sunrise to sunset I resurface roads across the East Midlands, carrying pots of boiling tar, gluing hands and scorching flesh. Some days it feels like purgatory, waking up before dawn or not sleeping at all. I hop over bubbling pools with men who could be a gang of grim reapers, their crooked shadows formed from clouds of steam, shovels raised above heads.
My workmates and I, the drunks and addicts, thugs and thieves.
But then a lunch break, and I’ll find myself on the edge of a field eating sandwiches I made in the dark that morning, the sun-blessed corn in motion, the gang quiet and still, drinking tea from flasks or doing crosswords. These misfits, these terse and occasionally violent men, standing over a stream and naming the fish.
I like to write about these things. Secretly. I have a little notebook that fits in my back pocket. If any of the others knew I wrote they’d think me odder than they already do, a man with a degree shovelling stone.
I told Jez not to tell anyone I had a psychology bachelor, but he confided in Greebo, who confided in everyone. Now my nickname is Psycho. The more paranoid on the gang believe I’ll read their mind, discover what depraved thoughts linger in their subconscious, and have them arrested. Or worse, committed.
Jez got me the job. He cut ‘Jez’ into his arm with a broken bottle two years ago. You can read his name by the scars if you forget. He has that wired leanness between a junkie and long distance runner, a skinny kid with a drug habit and guitar.
He chants, “Greebo, Greebo, Greebo,” as he rolls another joint, skilfully crumbling tobacco as Greebo swings us through a roundabout.
Greebo has a steel plate in his skull. He failed to ride a motorbike through a patio door at a party, “Yonks ago.” That was in the heyday of 70s bike gangs, bearded drunks in pub car parks swinging chains like warring Vikings. Now his hair is grey and tattoos faded, his head hurts in the cold.
He drives us back to the country lane we sprayed and stoned this afternoon, a tour of the flatlands and industrial estates of the East Midlands, the dead canals and flooded quarries, pit towns that time forgot when the coal ran out.
White dust, thrown up from the traffic, hovers in the indigo sky. I hang off the side door, lift up the orange cones and throw them to Jez who stacks. When we see the pavement swept and loose stone rolled, there’s satisfaction, a job well done.
“Right,” announces Greebo, steering with one hand and knocking back a can of Tennants with the other. “Time to get gone.”
Until Monday morning we’ve finished resurfacing. Jez leans over to Greebo, that near the wheel he could drive himself. Greebo shouts, “What are you playin’ at?” as Jez starts singing, a worthy impression of Robert Smith from The Cure. “Tuesday, Wednesday heart attack, Thursday I don’t care about that.” Greebo tells him to “Gerrout out of it,” but Jez tugs on his beard and finishes the line, “It’s Friday I’m in love.”
The van veers over the white line as Greebo fights off Jez. “You need a pint, quick. That wacky baccy’s sent you nuts.”
We’re going to The Grove, a snooker club and bar. The rest of the gang will be there, the tipper drivers and line painters, the angry foreman with a smile on his face, all drunk in their work clothes.
And what you think you can smell the moment you open the rattling door and pass through to fags and beer, frying chips and stale ashtrays, is failure. You’re wrong. This is freedom. A retreat from gas bills and council tax, the leaky sink that needs repairing, the bastard boss and a nagging wife, a football team fighting relegation.
Not failure, but a refuge from it. And a place where miracles occur, where men on incapacity benefit lean over snooker tables and cannon balls into corner pockets. A bar you can walk out richer than when you walked in. Or poorer. Or in debt. A week’s wage won and lost on the deal of a card, that ball in the corner.
This is where I skipped class, messed up my A-levels. Instead of trigonometry from textbooks I learnt about angles with a pool cue. But this was before university, before I was a real student. Student, a dirty word here. A word that translates into ‘traitor’ in a roomful of men who’ve worked all their lives.
A place where an education does have value is on the quiz machine. Players call me over for a cut of their winnings. I know things like who wrote The Seagull, the founders of Cubism, in what book Holden Caulfield is the protagonist. A week ago I stood at the end of a job with a Stop-Go board in one hand, and The Catcher in the Rye in the other. I let the traffic pass every two pages.
But tonight we’re here to make merry, to get drunk and celebrate my birthday. Jez and I wear clean clothes we took to work in plastic bags, the tar and oil aftershave beneath a new shirt and jeans. Greebo washes the worst from his hands with a rag doused in diesel.
Then through that door, the bank of smoke, the music, always a ding-a-ling hit from the 1960s, time travel to the good old days – if you believe the barflies. Back to the golden age of a night out on a pound, ten pints and a bag of chips, and still change in your pocket for the bus fare home.
But this is now. We see Richie Reynolds lining up balls on the pool table. By day Richie works on the tar truck. At night he steals cars. One, maybe two a night. Add this up over a few years, and you have thousands. And never caught. For the moment he entertains himself setting up trick shots, a ball in every pocket and the white left spinning.
When he lifts his face from the cue, the first thing you see is the missing half of his left ear, grazed off when he rolled a convertible. Then the rude scars of unstitched cuts, the broken nose and missing eyebrow. But most striking of all is the impish grin of a cheeky boy trapped in a hooligan’s body. And with this grin, the glitter behind the mask of a thief, come the women who think they have him tamed. From fishwives of the estates to the kept women bored of rich husbands.
“This one I call the birthday boy.”
Richie chips the white off the table. I catch it before it hits the floor. All this is too much for Greebo, too fast for an old man.
“Enough of playing silly buggers with you lot.”
“Got your arrows?” asks Richie.
Greebo taps his top pocket. “I’d give you game if you were good enough.” He’ll be at the dartboard all night, lost in thud and subtraction, pints of mild.
We sit and Jez buys the first round of drinks. Richie looks across the room, no women but the dolled up with their husbands, a Friday night treat of public accompaniment.
Jez returns with three pints and a whiskey, “For the birthday boy.” We clink glasses and toast. I take a sip then set the beer down on the table.
“Drink up,” snaps Richie. “This place is a fucking morgue.”
We walk from The Grove, past the mobile burger van, over a crossroads with a pub on each corner, past the church and the Chinese takeaway, and into the poorly lit Conservative Club car park. Richie asks if I want to see a skeleton key and pulls a screwdriver from his pocket. Jez giggles, drunk and stoned. We walk the rows of cars until Richie suddenly stops.
“Did someone call a taxi?”
“Into town, boss.”
“And your bird?”
Jez laughs. Richie stabs in the screwdriver up to the hilt, twisting and turning until the buckled lock breaks.
He jumps in and flicks open the passenger door. Jez lifts the handle. “What you hanging around for?”
I’m about to run the other way when two men walk from the club.
And I do.
Richie rips off the plastic ignition cover. He tears at it like a child unwrapping a Christmas present. Then the wires, tugging out a handful from the steering column. He chooses two, touches the exposed copper and sparks up the engine.
“We have lift off!” shouts Jez.
Richie holds himself between the seats and looks directly through the back window. He reverses from the car park. The two men in shirts and ties run down the steps, shouting, calling out like good relatives with something we left behind.
From the entrance Richie whips the steering wheel, jams the clutch, and shifts into first. Wrong way up a one-way street, an oncoming car flashes and sounds the horn. Richie rocks up the kerb, drops gears and churns lawns, flaring mud and grass as we cut across a garden before bouncing onto the carriageway, screeching out a U-turn that spans all four lanes. I slide across the back seat and stick to the door. When Richie straightens to pull away, the tail end flicks out. He rights it hard and forces the car on.
“Still smokin’,” whoops Jez.
The wheels are spinning in third gear as Richie accelerates, weaving from lane to lane.
“Turn it in,” says Richie. “I don’t want it.”
Jez flicks down the window and flattens the mirror against the car. Richie slams up the rear view mirror, reaches out and smashes off the wing mirror. It hits the road and explodes into glitter. He engine brakes onto a roundabout and spears the circle, directly passing cars on the inside lane to cut them off at the exit in a fanfare of horns.
I ask about the mirrors, shouting over the thrashed engine.
“What’s in front what counts,” he answers. “Why look back when you’re goin’ forwards?”
“What about a chase?”
“Every time I look to see how close they are, I’m losin’ road. You’re a blind man drivin’ if you’re not lookin’.”
Street lamps brighten the dual carriageway, emphasising the black beyond the city, like a bridge of light suspending us over the dark.
Close to a hundred Richie adjusts his seat flat and tells me to take the wheel. He centres the car over the cat’s eyes and slips into the back, leaving us driverless and drifting towards the central reservation. I climb past and take the steering wheel, nervous, gripping too hard.
“Imagine you’re holdin’ an egg,” instructs Richie.
“A huge egg. If you grip the egg too hard you’re gonna crush it, too soft and you’ll drop it.”
I ease my grip, think of the precious egg, and stamp on the accelerator. I feel the floor of the car beneath the pedal. I can hear Jez shouting, no, singing, the tune and lyrics lost in the roar of flaming petrol and furious pistons, the tamed explosion at the end of my toes. I feel the whole thing could come apart in my hands, just the three of us jetting the blurred road, flying. No need for a car at the speed of light.
“Roundabout,” shouts Jez. He’s frantically pointing, afraid I haven’t seen the island. Richie tells me not to turn off. I change down gears heel toe, and power into the middle lane. I circle the island. Jez leans against the door as the car tilts and squeals.
“Now,” Richie shouts. “Next exit.”
I glance over my shoulder to a blaze of headlights. I hesitate, and then swerve from the roundabout, missing a van by inches. The traffic, the van and cars, slide to a standstill. All sound their horns.
“No way,” exclaims Jez. “How close was that?”
“Decisions,” says Richie. “No messing about asking yourself yes or no.”
Now the road is unlit, hedges and kamikaze moths stream the headlights.
“Boom,” says Richie. “Life. You do it then you’re dead.”
The beaten engine smells like burning rubber. Parked on the edge of town, behind a knitwear factory with broken windows, another abandoned warehouse, and a nightclub, we watch the stragglers leaving, kicked out or carried out, the drunks fallen asleep in the toilet, men with sick on their shirts. And the girls who’ve waited for a doorman to take them home, smoking, cold in cheap dresses on a late summer night. No clouds to hold the heat, but no stars either, blazed away by the amber street lights.
This time I smoke and convince myself it’ll clear my head. And not a cigarette. I hold my breath, exhale, feel the weight of a spinning earth loosen from my limbs. Richie takes back the spliff, inhales, then blows perfect smoke rings through the open window. “How’s your birthday so far?”
I tell him the time, that it’s over.
“You ain’t a year older till the sun comes up.”
“Anyway,” says Jez. “You ain’t had your present yet.”
“I can’t wait.”
Richie smiles. “You can write about it in your little book.”
I pretend to know nothing about “a little book,” but Richie never misses a trick. Nothing. I’ve been with him in the van on a motorway, followed his pointed hand to a speck on a blue sky, a kestrel, a red kite. For a man so casual with violence, a man who once kidnapped his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and tortured him in a rented garage, he’s capable of such tender kindness. A week ago he scooped up a handful of orphaned ducklings from a hard shoulder, cheeping over a run-down mess of feathers. He wrapped them in his jacket, took them home and set them on his little pond. He fed and kept them in a shoebox. When they were big enough to return to the wild he took them to work in the van, flapping and quacking between the shovels and cones. He stopped by the reservoir and floated each one onto the lake, the look on his face like a mother watching her first child through the school gates.
“And what about my little book?”
“You tell me.”
I feel like a border guard. Richie is a man on the threshold of my secret kingdom, awaiting permission to enter.
He asks me to read something from it. “What’s the point in writing stuff down if no one else is gonna hear it.”
I take a chance. I let him pass. Or maybe I have no choice? I pull the notebook from my back pocket and read a poem about a badger we buried last week, a job for the council called in by a passing motorist who saw the black and white body on a verge.
When I finish reading it’s that quiet in the car I can hear tobacco burn in the cigarette as Richie inhales. I’m as a nervous as a convict awaiting sentence.
“That was sound.” Jez breaks the silence. “You gave me a proper buzz. I remember that badger.”
And even this much reaction feels good. But I wait for Richie, still smoking, down to the filter as always. He flicks the cigarette butt from the window, a flurry of sparks when it strikes the ground.
“Bearers of the dark,” he quotes. “I like that. How we picked him up and put him in the ground. All careful, like we were afraid of waking him up.”
Richie rests his hands on the steering wheel. He looks from the open window, checks the sky.
“You know what,” he says. “Time to go and get your present.”
We walk across the empty car park. The last taxis have come and gone from the nightclub. The eastern sky is tinged with cyan. And quiet, just the buzz of street lights, a distant police siren wailing across town. At the back of the building, over a barbedwire fence, we start climbing the metal fire escape. I ask where we’re going, and Richie stops, turns with a finger to his lips.
First, second, third floor. We’re heading for the club on the fourth. And I hope for something innocuous, like watching sunrise from the roof.
At the top, before the closed door, Richie stops, looks across town, the empty streets and derelict factories. Rows of slated roofs. He puts his hands on the rail like a preacher at a pulpit. I wait with Jez on the steps below, cold, shivering a little. Richie looks down, past Jez. I’m frightened by the force of his stare, his measured thought.
“Listen.” He says. “After you get this present, I don’t want you turning up for work on Monday morning.” He spits over the rail. “Get it?” I nod, though not sure why until he adds, “What are the the rest of us supposed to dream about if you’re shovelling stone?”
Then he takes a step back from the exit. “Happy fucking Birthday.” He lifts his leg and kicks, splintering the door open.
The club is deserted, an empty dance floor. No flashing lights or glitter ball twirl. Richie and Jez storm in. I follow, the reluctant robber.
Or am I? All I have to do is walk away. But the rush of breaking in prickles my skin. And the fact this is being done for me, my birthday.
Richie walks between the tables and chairs toward the bar, the register.
“How do you know they ain’t cashed up?” asks Jez.
Richie laughs. “Because I robbed the manager last month. Getting into his car with five grand.” He hops the counter, looks at the till for about a second, then hauls it onto the floor. He scans the room, the closed entrance. “Pass that extinguisher.” I heft the red cylinder over the counter. Richie grips the handle, takes a deep breath and lifts it shoulder high. And down. Deft with shovel or pick, he sets about smashing open the cash drawer as though digging up a strip of road.
Jez stands on the counter, reading whiskey labels. He snatches down a single malt, twists off the optic and swigs, screwing up his face. “Have a go on that.” I catch the thrown bottle and drink.
Richie is committed to finishing a job he’s started. The metal ring of extinguisher on register gets louder and louder, the buckled drawer coming apart with each blow.
Jez swigs from bottles of port and sherry, a magnum of champagne showered after popping the cork into the ceiling.
But then a real bang.
And this pop’s louder than a stopped cork.
Plaster showers from the ceiling. Jez dives off the bar like a goal keeper saving a penalty in a cup final.
I hit the floor. But before another shot caroms through the room, I do what the voice commands, “Get up!”
When I turn and stand, hands to the roof, I see that Jez and Richie reach up, too. Palms high before a fat man in a dressing gown with a smoking gun. One of those gleaming shotguns you see nestled in the crook of men’s arms with pheasants dangled over their shoulders. He sweeps both barrels from the end of the bar to Richie, takes a step closer. “I know your face.” He prods the barrels into his chest. “You cheeky cunt. Twice in a month.”
Richie doesn’t blink. “You got one cartridge. You gonna shoot us all with a magic bullet?”
The bald man laughs, a snigger. “No. But once your chest is gone I don’t reckon your mates’ll be up to much.” He quickly looks us over. “I dump the weight of them two before breakfast.”
Then he thumbs back the hammer. Jez shakes, wets himself, a dark stain down the insides of his jeans.
But this man doesn’t know it’s my birthday. That I’m twenty-four and carry a toy gun. He doesn’t know it won’t put a hole in his skull when I level it at his bald head, commanding he lower a metal shotgun with my plastic pistol.
I surprise myself, the way I walk with the toy as if I might really kill. The way I order him to his knees.
We take the money and leave him on the floor, a dressing gowned monk in prayer, his shotgun broken in two over the counter.
And so sudden we’re running down the steps of the fire escape, falling into each other on the metal landings, tumbling into the car.
As we screech away the man I held captive with a water pistol throws the extinguisher from the top floor. Richie swerves. It rings like a church bell when it hits the tarmac.
We shoot red lights and junctions, the dead ends and one way streets, till we’re clear of the city and heading into the glow of a new day. Jez pulls bills from beneath his shirt and throws them into my lap. Thousands of pounds. I say we should share it.
“Don’t be so ungrateful,” snaps Richie.
“It’s the thought that counts,” laughs Jez, still trembling, passing Richie the single malt he ran with from club. Richie tips the bottle and gulps before handing it to me. I drink and feel the burn to my stomach.
“Where are we actually getting away to?” I ask, the breeze from the open window fluttering money across the backseat.
Richie turns, smiling. “To pay our respects.”
Again we drive through the old pit towns, the patchwork fields of corn and cows, pig farms and reservoirs, acres of redbrick estates. Then past the council depot, the heaps of stone and grit, where the yellow trucks stand like ranks of troops.
“Take a good look at them gates,” says Richie. “Because you ain’t going through ’em again.”
And now he heads to the lane where we buried the badger, to the black and white flash of fur we’d silently lowered into the earth, the wooden crucifix I tied with string and fixed in the verge.
Mist hovers, grass sparkles with dew. In the hedgerows spider webs glint with dawn. Richie slows, winds down the window and pours a little whiskey onto the grave.
But he doesn’t stop.
I glance for the rear view mirror, the one he slammed away when we first got in the car, when it was still my birthday. Then Richie puts his foot down and fires us into the rising sun. That fast you’d think him afraid of the darkness chasing behind.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY was a runner up in the 2009 Bridport Prize. It is published here in memory of James Disney, the late and beloved friend who inspired the story.
Not with flowers or poems,
words on the wind, but a sharing of blood
The L is easy – puncture the skin
and down, draw the dyed thread through
and turn. He grits his teeth and
Tears well, magnify his eyes.
Next, I butcher an O into form,
four fish swimming in a broken ring,
lost sperm twitching and dizzy.
Then the V is swift
and clean, two lines become one,
my best work so far.
Finally the E,
the stain complete.
The unspoken signed in flesh.
H should be etched on the next knuckle,
the left hand yin
to his right hand yang,
but he stops me here,
clenches his fist and reads.
TATTOO was a prizewinner in the Oxo Gallery Art of Love competition