Sail Away – Chapter Five – My Father, the Zero

Chapter Five – My Father, the Zero

My father’s full name was Jonas Jebediah Wright and he was pretty cool really, all things considered. He was 5” 10 with piercing blue eyes andwith his short blonde hair approaching a flat-top, he resembled a less muscular salesman version of Guile from “Street Fighter”. He always wore a shirt and tie, except on Sundays when he would break out a novelty t-shirt and a pair of old jeans. Sundays were important in the Wright household.

Nobody left the house and nothing, except bad DIY and the cooking of the Sunday Roast, got done. My enduring memory of the old man will always be watching him bent backwards, screwing a shelf to the wall, asking me to pass him his cup of tea as the shelf swung slowly down to hit him in the head. Good times.

Mum was an expert at roasting. Our potatoes were always crisp on the outside, fluffy inside, the beef always crusty yet tender, the carrots still retained their bite. It was a shame that we didn’t roast Monday to Saturday too; she let standards slip during the week when we consumed everything that could be eaten with chips from the freezer. This even included spaghetti bolognese on one memorable Wednesday, alongside the ubiquitous baked beans or frozen peas.

Dad never complained, he just made sure he got the takeaway in once a week from the Indian or, disappointingly, the local chip shop. Occasionally, when Mum was out at one of her doomed evening classes (she never lasted more than two weeks at anything; belly dancing, Pilates, origami, you name it, she failed it), Dad would “cook” me dinner, usually a near-cremated pork chop with mashed potatoes and beans. I always did my best to sneak it out to the bin in the garden and raid the cupboards for Mini Cheddars and Penguin bars instead, but he knew what was going on. He knew what he’d given me was inedible but it was, like a disappointing Christmas present, the thought that counted.

On Sundays, if I was lucky, in between injuring himself with bits of the house, Dad would play games with me; a kick-about in the driveway, Hungry Hippos or, best of all, we’d turn the Xbox on and either beat the crap out of each other on “Marvel vs Capcom” or race the day away on “Kart-toons”.

The best thing about those Xbox days was that Dad sucked. He was raised on “Pong” and “Space Invaders”, games with only one joystick. He never quite mastered the dual analogue pad with two sticks, and his ape-like lack of thumb control meant I could lap him every time. He also decided, early on, that his favourite characters in either game were the biggest, fattest or stupidest available. This was good news for me, a fan of the spritely ninjas and small rodents, and I trounced him every single time. And it never, ever got boring.

Now I think about it, maybe he was just trying to give me a chance. I caught him playing “Kart-toons” at 3 in the morning when I had flu once. He told me he couldn’t sleep, but the empty beer bottles beside the armchair made me suspicious. The next day I logged in to his profile and found that his midnight gaming sessions happened at least three times a week and he’d beaten the game four times at least.  That Sunday I still kicked his ass all over the lounge. Normality was restored.

Saturday’s were just as routine, as reliable as clockwork. Dad took me out to watch Bristol City lose a couple times, but that was highly irregular behaviour. Saturday’s meant shopping in the morning and the football in the afternoon. As my parents hated Rupert Murdoch and paying for things, Sky TV was not an option. We’d get back from the supermarket in time for “Football Focus”, then depart for our separate lairs for a couple hours, mine being my room and my Nintendo DS, Dad’s the shed or his office where he’d pretend to be busy, while Mum cleaned the kitchen and the bathroom and tried, usually successfully, to get one of us to do the hoovering and/or mow the lawn in the summer. Then we’d meet back in the lounge for “Final Score” before tea.

Dad was a dyed in the wool City fan, but as is usual for fans of lower league sides, he also supported a Premier League side, Everton. I don’t know why he did, as far as I knew my parents had never been further north than London and didn’t even like the Beatles. But every Saturday, Dad would sit in front of “Final Score” wearing his blue “Up the Toffees” scarf and tell me that Manchester United were a bunch of glory hunters, Liverpool were not as good as they used to be, and that my team, Arsenal, were a bunch of “soft Southerners” in his thick West Country accent. Bristol City were only discussed on the very rare occasions that they won a game, or the not so rare occasions when they got their asses handed to them on a silver platter.

Dad was a bit of an enigma, all things told. I knew that Mum was an only child, born in Weston-super-Mare in the early 1960s to Ernest and Eileen Southon, my grandparents, who died before I was ten. Like Mum, I had no siblings, no cousins to speak of. But Dad, he never talked about his life before us. It was as though his family had ceased to exist before Mum and I came along to fill his empty, clandestine life. As far as I knew, he had probably been born in a test tube and raised as a photocopying slave in a paper company’s sales office, forced to wear a shirt and tie and fed things that could be cooked with a toaster or a kettle; just a lonely, miniature version of his adult self, listening to the football on radio Five Live and failing to hang shelves over and over again, like a five second clip of “The Office” stuck on repeat.

He had no photographs, and no childhood friends ever called him up out of the blue. He wouldn’t even tell me why he wouldn’t tell me about his childhood. He countered every searching question I asked him with one of his own; how was my essay on Napoleon going, why was I talking with my mouth full, or some other stock parental get out. I soon stopped asking him where my cousins, my other grandparents were; it was more hassle than it was worth and I never got anywhere. I sometimes used to imagine that perhaps he used to be a secret agent, infiltrating the corrupt paper industry like a decoupage James Bond, but I just couldn’t buy my own fantasies. They didn’t make sense applied to the man. The truth was, it seemed, simple. My father was as blank and predictable as the ticking of the minimalistic clock in our old hall; just a couple hands whirling endlessly in front of a paper white face like he always had and always would. I wish he’d never stopped.

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Sail Away – Chapter Four – Robot in Disguise

Chapter Four – Robot in Disguise

I had resorted to unpacking. The school had been on the phone to Uncle Archie that morning; I was suspended for a week. I’d managed a morning, and I was already on the naughty list. The head teacher, Mr Swain, told Uncle Archie that I should be ashamed of myself for beating up a girl. This would never have happened at St. Catherines.

I tucked my boxer shorts away in the small, pink chest of drawers. Most of them had holes in. Where would I get them from now Mum was in a coma? Pants and socks were the type of thing that just arrived of their own accord, spontaneously appearing on my bed when I got home from school. We never talked about it. There was no need to. They were just, there. She was the tooth fairy of underwear.

At St. Catherines, my old school on the outskirts of Bristol, I’d been something of a golden boy. I’d never had an after-school detention, just two lunch-times, and they were for the whole class. I never did figure out how I was involved in either. After all, James Jackson had just pissed in the bin, he didn’t ask my permission, and I certainly had nothing to do with tying the condom to the blinds in Religious Education, although if laughing until I choked made me guilty, then I guess I deserved it. We all did.

I never had to worry about parent’s evenings, all the teachers ever said was that I was “on track” but they worried that I was “coasting along”, your basic “acceptable-but-must-try-harder-for-the-sake-of-league-tables” assessment as Dad had called it. I was predicted all A’s and B’s. I wasn’t worried.

I punched a hole in the empty cardboard box, squashed it flat and pushed it under the horrible bed. In the two weeks and two days I had been in Polpollo, I had slept for a total of two nights, at a rate of around an hour every twenty four. I tried to bring it up at breakfast, but Uncle Archie had just slammed the plate of kippers on toast in front of me, pulled on his yellow hat and left without a word. I’d thrown the disgusting kippers away and eaten seven digestive biscuits instead.

In the next box, I found my old toys, chucked in together, Action Men tangled with Transformers (Optimus Prime did not look happy in the arms of Dr X), Buzz Lightyear, Anakin Skywalker kicking Pikachu in the nuts (do Pokemon have genitals?) and various other action figures, Nerf guns and my old bear, Teddy Ruxpin. Dad had bought him from a car boot sale, which went some way towards explaining why he had a cassette deck in his backside and whirring eyes. Apparently, Dad said Teddy Ruxpin was the star of a cartoon in the eighties, but the Youtube videos I found were cringingly lame (like most things from the eighties).

I left the toys, apart from Optimus Prime, in the box and pushed it under the bed. I stood Optimus on the window sill, looking out into the leafy garden. “Transformers” was still kind of cool, I could get away with it thanks to Megan Fox and that kid from “Even Stevens”.

Finally, I found my Xbox 360, wrapped carefully in a duvet in the last box. I pulled it out, tossed the duvet on the bed and set the console up next to my little 15” flat screen, a present for my fifteenth birthday. I pulled out my games and piled them next to the console on the desk. I had all of the “Call of Duty” games, but they were for show. My real passion was the kind of game I should have probably stopped playing when I was ten; Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, Spyro, and my all-time favourite “Kart-toons”. I opened the case and put the game into the yawning disc drive.

“Kart-toons” was awesome. Part “Mario Kart”, part cartoon, it was the most fun I’d ever had. Admittedly, I’d never been to Disneyland or Alton Towers, I’d never been to the back row of the cinema with Lindsay Mancini except in my head, but “Kart-toons” was something else. A hundred-mile-an-hour racing as Paul the Penguin or Carl Croc and friends, shooting balls of energy at the other go-karts in a world where it never rained and all beaches were equipped with a racetrack and loop the loops.

I looked at my in-game records with a real sense of achievement. I’d completed every grand prix with record times, I had three gold stars on my completion file, the maximum possible to get. I’d beaten every time trial and the game with every character. The game held nothing but nostalgia for me now, a familiar retreading of my own glorious path, and the best thing of all; the ability to beat Japanese kids at their own game.

I moved the cursor to Race Online and pushed start. Nothing happened. I tried again, the same error message, “No Internet Connection.” I opened the internet connection wizard. No connections found. Something was wrong.

As I checked the wiring on the back of the console and found that everything was firmly connected, Michael Parkinson padded quietly into the room and leapt onto my lap. Don’t be disturbed, this was no Jimmy Saville situation. Michael Parkinson was Uncle Archie’s fat orange cat, a big bristling ball of feline fury, all claws and fishy whiskers. He had one wonky eye that made him appear to be constantly distracted by something just over your shoulder. I sat back and ruffled his fur. He purred and craned his neck regally.

I’d never seen Uncle Archie touch Michael Parkinson. His sole contact with the cat came twice a day when he’d put down a saucer of milk and a bowl of cat food or, on special occasions, a plate of kippers. Uncle Archie had a thing about kippers. Evidently, you never really retired from the life of the professional fisherman. Uncle Archie left the house every morning in his beaten up old Land Rover and went down to the harbour, where he took his dinghy, the “Tigress”, out on the tide. He’d offered to take me fishing, but I told him that fishing was boring. I think that was the moment he gave up hope that I was “normal”.

I turned the Xbox on and off, once, twice, nothing. No flicker on the wireless signal meter. I turned my laptop on. Surely not, not in this day and age, it was impossible; Uncle Archie had to have an internet connection. How else would he buy his dusty fishing books? Polpollo didn’t even have a Waterstones.

The laptop told the same story. No connection! I stood suddenly, depositing a hissing Michael Parkinson to the floor in a ball of claws and fur, and ran downstairs. There was the phone, a brown plastic 1970’s model sat next to the front door. No router. I ran from room to room, opening the doors. It was true. Uncle Archie didn’t even have a computer!

I kicked the wastepaper bin in the sitting room over, spilling the banana peels and old newspapers across the scratchy thin brown carpet. What kind of place was this? No internet, no computer, no Sky+, no flat screen TV. Uncle Archie didn’t even have a mobile phone! I felt like that helicopter had smashed a hole in time when it landed, catapulting me back to before my birth, to a brown and grey land with only four channels, where Snakes and Ladders had been the very cutting-edge of entertainment. Uncle Archie had made me play him seven nights in a row before I faked a headache and went to bed without any tea.

I’d had enough. No internet, fish every day, a disgusting pink girl’s room, a stinky old cat, no friends, no family, no conversation! I ran upstairs and buried my head in my pillow, wondering how long it would take for someone to notice I’d smothered myself to death.

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Sail Away – Chapter Three – A Load of Old Balls

Chapter Three – A Load of Old Balls

 

The moment I had been dreading all morning arrived as I stared out of the window at the sea crashing against cliffs in the drizzle. The bell rang for lunch. I was starving but my packed lunch looked pretty nasty and I couldn’t remember where the canteen was. My tour of the school with Barry, the head boy, had lasted ten minutes before he’d ditched me outside the Languages block to go for a sneaky fag behind the shop around the corner. But my appetite was not the reason I’d been dreading that bell. It was the note I’d been passed during French.

The morning had begun pretty normally, and I was even in danger of enjoying myself during French with Monsieur Strange. After my “tour”, I was twenty minutes early for my first lesson and, consequently; I was first into the classroom. I took a seat near the back and watched my classmates file in just before the second bell for the start of class.

They appeared to be the usual mix of nerds, cool kids and ASBOs, all wearing their ties in the varying fashions of their respective tribes. The nerds wore their ties long, the cool kids rocked theirs short and fat and the ASBOs tended more towards the miniature knot with the longer back-piece, with one notable exception.

An enormous ginger girl was the last into the classroom, just after the second bell as if she’d been waiting for it. She joined her two chattering acolytes, marked by their ties as members of the ASBO clan, at an empty desk next to mine at the back. As the classroom filled up, I’d wondered why nobody had taken that table. The room had filled from the back to the front, but that desk has remained untouched, as though marked by an invisible reserved sign. Now, I could see why.

All three of the girls had lank, greasy hair, and wore off-white shirts that told tales of grass stains, mud and blood in the not too distant past. As Monsieur Strange stood at the front of the class and took the register, the little group snorted at the names of girls that wriggled uncomfortably in their seats near the front of the classroom.

The massive ginger girl answered to the name Jodie Craddock, and her acolytes appeared to be Samantha Smith and Kirsty Squabb, and nobody laughed when they answered their names.

Eventually, it was my turn. “Greg Wright?” the teacher asked, looking in my direction.

“Here, sir.”

“Ah, Greg, you’re the new boy eh? Everybody, this is your new classmate, Greg. Keep your head down, and your chin up, and you’ll do fine.”

“And your head up Strange’s arse!”

The trio on the table next to me cackled like a coven at that. I was hated them already. Jodie stared at me when she caught me looking at her. It was a stare that dared me to say something. Keep your head down. That was good advice.

Monsieur Strange turned to face the white board and told us to take out our textbooks. I’d brought my old one which was, of course, completely different to the rest of the classes. Out the corner of my eye, I saw Jodie spit her chewing gum into the hair of a pretty little brunette in the row in front. The girl fingered it without a word, and didn’t turn around.

As Monsieur Strange took us through the world of voitures and bibliotheques, I settled in a little. I even began to answer one or two questions, it was easy. We’d covered this in my last term at St. Catherines. Every time I spoke, Jodie stared at me. It was not a friendly stare.

I’d learnt to keep quiet at St. Catherines. I’ve always been quite good at the languages stuff, English, French and German, but at school it is always best to keep a low profile. Nobody wants the universal hatred that comes with being crowned class swot, but here, I couldn’t help it. Here I was a nobody. I had to impose myself somehow.

Coming into a class midway through Year 11 is not an easy thing to do. Everyone knows each other, they know their places and roles, and they know what to expect. I was a random particle, a free radical; bouncing about their rigid structure (I’ve always been quite good at science too). I had to persuade them I wasn’t dangerous.

Jodie Craddock and her coven had made up their minds. A piece of paper hit me in the side of the head. Instinctively, I looked at Craddock. She caught my eye and mimed unwrapping it. I picked up the small ball and straightened the paper. It read (sic):

“Your ded frog boy! C u at lunch…”

I turned back to the window. I could hear them laughing at me. At first, I wasn’t too scared; they were just a bunch of stupid girls. What could they do, really? Throw mud at me, push me over? How bad could it be? I’d been in a fight before, in Year 9, with Daniel Cartwright, and he was captain of the rugby team. But as the lesson wore on, I began to worry. I couldn’t lose to a girl, but I couldn’t hit her either. And every time I looked over, Jodie and her minions stared back at me, whispering. It was unnerving.

After French, I found my way to double English without much trouble and doodled my way through the class. Morning break was a blur of introductions in the library as Barry paraded me around like a new phone, showing me off to the assembled nerds and library freaks. They didn’t seem too bad. James and Phil, Barry’s mates, were OK; they were fellow gamers too, even if they seemed to like FIFA a bit too much. We left together for double History before lunch. I didn’t mention the note.

Luckily, Jodie Craddock wasn’t in History either, although Samantha Smith was, but she sat near the front and didn’t catch my eye. Not so tough without her big buddy. We covered the Suez Canal, another subject I knew well, but it was really, really boring. Our teacher, Mrs Jones, droned on and on monotonously about the Suez crisis and President Nasser, stopping occasionally to polish her little round glasses on her pale blue scarf. The rest of the class scribbled notes in silence. I stared out the window at the wild surf and heavy rain. With any luck, we would have to stay indoors at lunch. I resolved to stay in the library even if we didn’t. Craddock couldn’t touch me there.

When the bell rang, I waited at the door for James and Phil. Safety in numbers. James came over as Phil stopped to speak to Mrs Jones.

“Having fun so far?”

He was a little tubby, but wore his shirt untucked and his tie short; clearly one of the cool kids. He had a rosy face which clashed with his bright red backpack, and short blonde hair. I nodded.

“Shall we head to the library then?”

“At lunch? Nah mate, we’re heading to the canteen, then down the playground. I’ve got my football; us lads always have a game at lunch.”

Phil detached himself from making excuses about his homework and joined us. As we left, I told them about the note. Phil laughed.

“Craddock wants to kick your ass? That fat bitch, she’s just pissed off because no one will go to the Prom with her. Don’t worry mate, we’ll tell her to fuck off.”

James was less reassuring.

“Remember what she did to Wojtek on his first day? She waited ‘til after school, beat him up and pushed him in the frog pond, just because he was Polish.”

Phil laughed.

“Oh yeah, I forgot about Wojtek! Poor kid left a week later. Still, maybe if he could actually speak English he wouldn’t have got his ass kicked. My Dad says that Polish are taking all his tax money anyway. All they do is sit around drinking vodka and having kids.”

I began to dislike Phil and his xenophobic father quite a lot. My great grandmother was a Polish refugee in the Second World War. I kept my mouth shut though. I needed a human shield in case Craddock came after me.

We made our way to the canteen. James and Phil argued about football, James supported Manchester United and Phil, originally from Birmingham, was a big Aston Villa fan. Being a Bristol City supporter, I kept quiet, damn glory hunters. I kept looking over my shoulder for a massive ugly ginger head with a hard punch and a predilection for ponds, but we made it to the canteen unscathed. I turned my attention to the pizza breads and hot dogs.

As we left the canteen, Craddock caught me unawares. She hauled me backwards bodily by my bag and hit me in the back of the head. A rapidly forming ring of pupils chanted as she kicked me hard in the balls, and I felt my stomach turn. Samantha and Kirsty inevitably led the mob like skanky cheerleaders, laughing and clapping in my face.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!”

James and Phil joined them; so much for my new friends, my human shield. Thanks guys. I fell to the floor and covered my head as she sat on my chest, raining down punches in the drizzle. She smelt like a sweaty dog in a fish market. Then, suddenly, as rapidly as it had formed, the crowd dispersed and I was free, squiggling like a worm in the mud.

A grey haired dinner lady had yanked Craddock off me bodily and was busy screaming at the giant girl, who smirked at me, lying beaten on the floor. Two more dinner ladies appeared and marched the ginger bully away to detention. She screamed abuse back at me as she disappeared into the building. I staggered to my feet.

“Are you alright boy?”

The dinner lady patted me on the shoulder. I nodded. I could feel my eye swelling, and my chest hurt worse than when I fell down the stairs on the way to the fair when I was eight. I saw James and Phil laughing with Barry as they turned a corner next to the playing field.

“You’re covered in mud!” The dinner lady tutted, disapprovingly, “Get that eye seen too in the infirmary and then get along to detention. We can’t have boys fighting girls. What’s the world coming too? Go on you bully, get out of my sight! Men like you make me sick!”

As I sat in the sick bay, waiting for the nurse to look at my eye, I thought about St. Catherines. I used to be cool, didn’t I? Well, not a total loser at least. I had my mates, I’d kissed a girl. I’d played for the football team. Now, in less than a month, I had nobody.

My misery was complete. I had been abandoned by my new “friends”, beaten by a girl, told off by an old woman, and given detention for the rest of the day. What a great first impression. I closed my eyes and hoped that, when I opened them, an asteroid would have obliterated the entire planet.

“Greg? What the hell happened to you?”

No such luck. I opened my eyes to a great bushy beard. It was Uncle Archie; a pissed off Uncle Archie. He took me home.

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Sail Away – Chapter Two – You Shook Me All Night Long

Chapter Two– You Shook Me All Night Long

 

I lay awake, too hot in the bed, my legs sticking out from beneath the old sheet. It smelt like an old wet cat. The mattress was horrible. It was doughy somehow, no better than the floor. Despite the heat, partly because of it, everything was damp.

I changed position for the third time in as many minutes, counting the seconds, but determined not to look at the clock. Time stretched itself around me as pictures, words and that damned song kept scrolling through my head; a midnight horror show on a ninety second loop.

“School’s out, for summer,” diddy did a, diddy did a, diddy did a.

The raven haired man waved the large snake draped about his shoulders at me menacingly.

“School’s out, forever,” diddy did a, diddy did a, diddy did a.

I opened my eyes to the dark, unfamiliar ceiling of the strange, sticky house. I needed something, anything to get Alice out of my head, but all my books, my TV, my laptop, sat boxed up beside the bed. I finally cracked and looked at the time; 4: 27 AM. It wasn’t fair!

Tomorrow would be my first day at the new school. New kids, new teachers, new rules, a new uniform and still those damned GCSEs loomed like sharks as I lay adrift on a raft made of human flesh. What an idiot. I couldn’t even sleep.

“No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.”

I flipped the pillow onto the cold side and turned over. Try to think about something else, anything at all; football, the Joker, the alphabet backwards, Lindsay Mancini, yeah, Lindsay, she was always there for me, in my own head anyway, even if I hadn’t ever actually spoken to her, not in real life anyway. But reality’s overrated nowadays.

I remembered walking past the field as the girls had Games one cold January morning, playing rounders on the frostbitten grass. A beautiful gust of wind had changed my life, forever. Had it not been for that fleeting glimpse of pink knickers and her red, embarrassed face, I, Greg Wright, might still be rereading Harry Potter and planning to ask for a laser tag kit for my next birthday. But now instead, I was a man. Or, at least, I was getting there.

Since that day, I had been on a quest towards “full sexual awakening.” At least that’s what the 1970’s biology textbook I’d found said would happen. I still wanted to know why Dad kept it hidden in the garage in a box of old records. Maybe it was Mum’s and she’d been naughty. That was what he did with my Super Soaker after I killed the toaster with it.

Lindsay disappeared with a pop. Dad had never really talked about girls; it had been Mum that first mentioned the concept of love and babies and “special cuddles”. School had filled in the blanks. I was still not entirely at home with the idea that the thing dangling between my legs had any more functionality than the garden hose. If anything, it was an irritation, a target for footballs and sharp black school shoes in the playground.

I rolled back onto my front, my right arm thrust beneath the pillow, bent awkwardly against the velour headboard, which, although it was dark, still seemed too pink for a young man’s bedroom. Apparently, it was my second cousin Hannah’s old room. She had left for University two years before, or so I’d heard from Uncle Archie. I didn’t even know I had a cousin, never mind a second one. I wished she’d taken her stupid, creepy china doll collection with her. They glared out in silhouette at me from the cabinet at the foot of the bed. Even though I couldn’t see their eyes, I knew they were watching.

It had to be quarter to five by now. I didn’t want to check my phone again. It was on loud anyway. If there was any news about Mum, the Kings of Leon would let me know.

The last two weeks had been the longest of my life, the loneliest too. I’d had barely spoken two words to Uncle Archie since I arrived, except to tell him that I hated fish, I hated spiders, I hated the sea and I thought I might hate him too. Uncle Archie seemed alright really, but he was still a stranger. I didn’t want him to think that this was going to be easy, for either of us. I had to keep him on his toes. To be fair, he hadn’t batted an eyelid at the torrent of hate, he’d just loaded his pipe and gone outside to smoke it, sat on his old wicker chair beneath the oak tree at the bottom of the garden.

The light peeped into the stuffy bedroom through the crack in the pink curtains like the eye of Sauron. The bed sucked, the room sucked, Cornwall sucked! I thrashed about beneath the moist sheet. It was no good; I threw it across the room. It landed on the mahogany cabinet, covering the dolls weird blank faces behind the glass door. At least that took care of them.

I got out of the sodden bed and lay on the floor, trying to get my head comfortable on the dense pillow, the carpet itching at my back. I began to drift off, thinking about Lindsay Mancini’s pretty smile, lying in the cool shadow of the bedstead.

It was just then that my alarm went off.

“YEEEEEAAAAHHHHH, your sex is on fire…”

I sat bolt upright and threw the phone as hard as I could at the door. It bounced to the floor in a shower of casings. I could see that the screen had cracked. What did it matter? There was no signal, nobody to text anyway, no missed calls from old friends. As far as Bristol was concerned, I had died too.

Sail Away – Chapter One – Kerpow!

Chapter One – Kerpow!

I’m Greg Wright, I’m 15 years old and I have no parents, not any more. But unlike Bruce Wayne, the World’s Greatest Detective, the Batman, you won’t hear me crying about it.

You won’t see pictures of me knelt in a dark alley, framed in the street light, weeping into my hands. To be fair, his parents were shot right in front of him. Mine smashed to Earth in a malfunctioning helicopter while I sat in double Maths, dreaming about Lindsay Mancini’s red lips and tight sweater.

My father was killed instantly, so he probably didn’t feel much pain apart from when his arm came off. He and the pilot died when the helicopter crashed into the golf course, just off the 18th green. The police didn’t tell me about his arm, but I found reports of the crash on the internet. Batman’s not the only one who can investigate. Not now there’s Google.

My mother is still sort of alive. She’s in a coma, which is pretty much a cross between being asleep and being dead. I went to see her in the hospital but she didn’t wake up, not even when the nurse left and I kicked the cupboard next to her bed. I sat and watched her, but she didn’t do anything. I took the box of chocolates back with me. She wouldn’t miss them. She didn’t even miss me. I left the flowers.

I had to go and sit in a lot of offices and speak to a lot of grey men and women in black while they decided what to do with me. My parents had not specified a guardian for me, and I had no god parents. I didn’t even have a god; my parents, a zoo keeper and a biologist, worshipped at the altar of Charles Darwin.

Eventually, after three days, they managed to get hold of my great uncle. I’d never met him. I’d never heard of him. Our family was a trio; Mum and Dad and me. We didn’t need anybody else. I went to school, they went to work, did the washing, cooked the meals and took me out on trips, to the park, to the beach and, sometimes, to see Dad’s friends at the zoo.

Dad was friends with a lion called Leonard, three baboons, Bob the ring-tailed lemur, a family of meerkats and Babar, who was not an elephant but another keeper with a big ginger moustache and a bald head. He laughed a lot and wore little round glasses, sort of like a less evil version of Dr Robotnik from Sonic the Hedgehog.

I wouldn’t have minded living with Babar. He had a nice house with a big garden and a chocolate Labrador called Simon just outside Bristol, where he and his wife threw barbecues in the summer. I always had at least three burgers and two hot dogs with extra onions. I wouldn’t have minded at all. But, instead, I was sent away from the city to live with my great uncle, Archie, who I had never even had a Christmas card from, in Polpollo, a little sleepy Cornish town by the sea.

The main man from the offices, from Social Service, fat Tony, drove me down to uncle Archie’s place. I’d never been to Cornwall before. My parents always wanted to “get away”, out of the country when we went on holiday. Most years we went to Majorca or Cyprus or Tenerife or some other little sun drenched rock in the middle of the ocean, to sit on the beach for two weeks and watch men play keyboards and sing to pink tourists on a white washed terrace in the evenings.

I’d pretty much been to Bristol, London twice, Bath several times shopping with Mum and on one ill-fated trip to Butlins Somerwest World in Minehead one lean year. I was seven, Dad had a beard and Mum had just been fired by the University. She told the Dean “where he could stick it” and walked out. I knew something was wrong when she met me at the school gate instead of letting me walk home with Bradley Wilkinson and his mum like usual.

We couldn’t afford to go abroad that summer, so we packed up the car and drove for what seemed like forever until we arrived at a weird cross between a rubbish theme park and a hotel, sort of like an own-brand Disneyworld, by an angry sea with a pebble beach. It was raining. It rained the whole week. Mum and Dad argued, for what seemed like the first time to me, every single day. We went in the pool, but we had to get out when the lifeguard blew his whistle and said that someone had pooed in the water. It was miserable.

I was miserable as we crossed the Tamar Bridge. I would have usually enjoyed the adventure, the height of the bridge high above the water on that sunny afternoon, watching the boats sailing beneath. Fat Tony had the radio on; he kept trying to cheer me up. “Listen to this! I love this song!” he’d say, and then sing along to the choruses in a flat voice with the wrong words. He loved every song they played that day, even the Vengaboys, until Simon and Garfunkel came on, “Bridge over Troubled Water.” He sort of spluttered and turned the radio off. We drove on in silence the rest of the way. I buried my head in a comic and didn’t look out the window again after that.

When we got to Polpollo, fat stupid Tony announced it with a big grin. “You’re home now Greg.” I knew we had arrived. He’d turned the engine off. He’d started to smell like cheese Doritos, the whole car reeked, so I quickly pushed the door open and stumbled out, clutching my comic collection and backpack to my chest. My favourite Batman, Hush, fell out of my grasp and landed, open, in a brown puddle. I slammed the door shut and fished it out. Tony fussed around behind me, trying to help, but just got in the way.

A door opened in the tumble-down cottage and a tall, white bearded man stepped out. He looked like an older version of Dad, sort of lanky with a big, wide nose and a little beer belly, but crossed with Gandalf or Dumbledore. He had a strange glint in his eye. He walked over to us and held out his hand.

“Hello Greg, nice to meet you. I’m your great uncle, Archibald Wright, Uncle Archie. I’m your Nana Elsie’s twin brother.”

I looked him up and down. His face was craggier than the cliffs behind the cottage. He smiled with yellow teeth, and his fingers were stained yellow at the ends. He wore a red and black lumberjack shirt, tatty jeans and his boots were muddy. I put my bag down to shake his hand; he had a tight grip and his hand felt like Timmy the tortoise’s shell, craggy and hard. Dad had loved that tortoise. I loved that tortoise.

“Hello, Uncle Archie.”

I didn’t know what else to say. Fat Tony said hello, and as they got to talking, I picked up my bag and pushed past them, into the cottage. Tony could bring the rest of the bags. I dumped my stuff just inside the door, found a small bathroom just off the hall and locked the door.

The house smelt musty, like a damp museum. The windows were tiny, and it was dark in there. I pulled the cord and a bare light bulb flickered on, revealing cobwebs and daddy long legs scuttling around the ceiling. Mum would never stand for that; she’d be up a stepladder with a feather duster in no time. I sat on the toilet seat, buried my head in my hands and closed my eyes. Maybe this, my wizard of an Uncle, fat cheesy Tony, the miserable house, was all just a dream.

The knock at the door told me it wasn’t. I heard an engine fading into the distance.

“Greg lad, tea’s up. We’re having mackerel.”

I’ve always hated fish.