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It was during those boiled-dry, bile-ridden, shit-ripped, godforsaken early-bird years of the nineteen eighties. The same summer my brother Barge started acrylic-ing his internationally celebrated collection of bad canvases featuring derelict houses with impractical tomato-red masonry and gaping windows: his agonizing L. S. Lowry period (and look what happened to him—a gleeful life of Northern bliss, stuck in Pendlebury with his bed-ridden mother. Pretty fucked up. Ask anybody).
And it was the identical year, more to the point, that my vicious but voluptuously creamy candle-wax-skinned sister, Christabel (Poodle for short, or Poo, if you really wanted to risk a trouncing) went out and invested in a brand-new pair of breasts, and then, with the kind of infuriating randomness only ever exhibited by terriers, High Church clerics, and the despicably attractive, finally got around to making the one and only decent-minded decision of her rancid, fatuous, nineteen-year-old life (a good impulse, you'll be pleased to know, that she never, ever recovered from).
And it was the self-same summer—June 5th, if precision is your watchword—that I first set eyes on a stringy southern hemisphere home-boy, a man-boy, a prankish puck by the name of La Roux (with very bad skin and even worse instincts), who sailed into the slow-beating heart of our halfarsed, high-strung, low-bred family, then casually capsized himself, but left us all drowning (now they don't teach you that at the Sea Scouts, do they?).
In order to pinpoint this nebulous time chronologically, to locate it in terms of general events of national—fuck—galactic significance, to set it all in perfect sync, so to speak, it was actually the very year in which that resplendent Sylph of Synth, that unapologetically greased-back, eye-linered soprano imp, Marc Almond (the rivetingly small-c'd Marc) enjoyed a late summer smash with his electro remake of Gloria Jones's old Northern Soul big-belter, 'Tainted Love', then celebrated it by devouring well over a pint of warm, pale cum in a public toilet—somewhere horribly unspecific—and got his gloriously effete wrist slapped, and his adorably flat stomach pumped for his sins.
Yes, that year.
And let us pause (momentarily), lest we forget the curious story of Mr Jack Henry Abbott, the bastard Yankee killer, the ingeniously literate reprobate (whose lucky-lettered surname would ensure him an opening position on the index of every World Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Murder for ever and ever more, amen), who in this particular summer somehow managed to prick the precious consciences of all those fine-minded, high-flying American writerly types (sure I can gloat—I lived in Texas for fifteen months. It was hot as Hades. It was dry as toast. I was resplendent in two completely random scarlet eczema mittens. I walked around with plastic bags on my hands to stop me sticking to furniture. I was medically advised not to get wet in the shower. Medically advised, I tell you. Call that humane?) and then spat, and spat again, in their kindly, good-intentioned, well-bred faces. (Don't you just love it?)
It was that year. It was that summer. Late that summer.
It was 1981.
So my dad loved Thurber. He had a penchant. What can I say? Thurber. The American who—so far as, I can tell, anyway—made a living out of writing witty stuff on the fascinating subject of canine behaviour. And he drew cartoons of bloodhounds doing human things in a mutty way but being all high and mighty about it, like making citizen's arrests and drinking pale ale in public houses and suffering from acute depression. As if dogs have all that much to be worried about—existentially—or superior about, come to think of it. And this clever cheeseball made a career from these meanderings. He was born in 1894 (this is Thurber, dimwit) and he lived—like my father—the first seven formative years of his life tortured by his incapacity to digest solids. Horrible gut problems. Huge coincidence, and hence, That Bond.
All told, there are seven of us: Big, that's Daddy. He's four foot nine in his clogs, which is pretty embarrassing, but when we were little, we were tiny. That's nature. We knew no better.
Painfully thin. Like a toothpick with elbows (yet in our minute consciousnesses, a giant pink radio mast, a wild, fleshy skyscraper), which is why Barge—who's already coming over slightly too idiosyncratic in these pages for my taste—went right on ahead and nicknamed him in one single syllable with his soft, slightly lisping, sweet baby-lips. Big.
Big does some landscape gardening. He's in the midst of compiling a supernaturally tedious Pocket Guide to Garden Shrubs. He lives to crochet. He still finds it extremely difficult to digest cheese. It's a daily battle.
Okay, Barge. Barge! What a wit! What a prodigy! Well, the truth is this kid's name was actually lifted straight from the collar of that ridiculous ale-lapping hound I believe I might already've mentioned earlier (a mongrel, a drunk, an ineffectual guard dog—these are details only a Thurber fanatic would find telling) and he is distinguished by being the oldest child in our considerable and cosmopolitan clan. Our clutch.
By mid-1981 Barge was living on the only kibbutz not actually inside Israel. I think it was deep in the Balkans, somewhere. He kept the faith by painting assiduously in the evenings and boiling beet for his keep. Clear-pored and righteous (This was 1981, for God's sake. He'd never even heard Bill Wyman's 'Je Suis un Rock Star'. It was depraved ).
Naturally the degraded root vegetable-based enclave to which he had only recently become attached consciously eschewed all unnecessary contact with modern technology. If you'd thought to ask, he'd've said Abacab was some kind of taxi service. Next up, or down, was the lovely Christabel with her two brand-new, out-of-the-blue, special-purchase, proud-upstanding, oxygen-tank tits (after she'd turned fifteen, if you called her Poo to her face, she'd string your teeth into a necklace and then make you pass it), a cheerfully malevolent teen queen, the only paid-up member of our benighted eighties familial troupe to wear normal-read as English-clothing (the rest of us stepped out boldly in our embroidered kaftans, fur-trimmed hide waistcoats and crochet knickers. We were mutants): I'm talking pleated skirts, high-neck blouses, court shoes. Standard hideous. All acquired—without exception—as a consequence of her devious and persistent extra-marital conjunctions.
But she was always Daddy's favourite, his pride, named after Thurber's most beloved black French poodle (although I fear close textual scrutiny reveals this animal to be an inconsistent, teasing, curly-hinded harridan: please refer to Mr T's essay on 'How to Name a Dog'. He doesn't say it, in so many words, but I believe the modern vernacular is slut.)
I'm next down and I'm Medve. No, it isn't a verb. And it isn't Ancient English for river or whore. Medve was also, if you must know, a Thurber canine, another poodle, not quite so beloved as Christabel, but, shucks, a great breeder by all accounts, and an independent dog blessed with the talent of throwing her own balls and then retrieving them. A bitch. Obviously.
Medve is Hungarian for bear, which, when you think about it, is pretty fucking grizzly. And don't ask me how to pronounce it. I will inflate and then I will gently burst. And it will be messy, because I am built like a shire horse. Six foot three in my crocheted stockings. I am huge. Sixteen years old in 1981, with a tongue taut and twisted as a tent-hook and two tremendous hands like flat meat racquets.
My serve, I think.
Sadly, I am the only recorded giant in our tribal history. There are no magnificent, monolithic, Humber-Bridge-building great-grandfathers hanging around helpfully in our fine family tree, no cousins-twice-removed making a fortune as novelty attractions in disreputable out-of-town freakshows. No one, in other words, for a poor, tall girl to look up to.
I am not stupid or rebellious enough to consider my difference a boon. I am anti-genetic. I am unnatural. And this hugeness is not even counterbalanced by any degree of sleekness or sveltness or grace. I have knees as wide as the skull of Neolithic man. They knock together sometimes, as I walk, and the subsequent crashing makes sheltering rabbits, deep in their burrows, roll their eyes skyward, embrace each other with their funny bunny arms and quake. I am clumsy. I lumber. I can only buy shoes through mail order. I disorientate seagulls.
Hang on, you're thinking (you're so transparent): seagulls?!.
I'll get to that. Hold your horses. First off, I just want you to imagine my little mother, Mo (there's nothing cutesie in this moniker, she's Maureen, that's all), five foot two inches tall, struggling to pass my huge head through her cervix. Think small African pygmy being force-fed a planet. Mars, maybe. Or Pluto. There will be screeching. There will be retching. And tearing. And tears. Afterwards the whole Sahara desert will look like a badly managed Halal butcher's.
Poor Mo. Mo is actually very scientific. In the fifties she published her Ph.D. entitled The Intellectual Woman's Guide to Atomic Radiation. It was a smash. There were so many intellectual women around back then, and all of them absolutely gagging to understand the atom. She might almost have planned it.
Naturally this fine specimen of emancipated womanhood cashed in on her little victory by choosing to spend the bulk of the following decade breeding with a man without a stomach on a series of far-flung atolls. She has a passion for atolls (not, I fear, an interest as inspiringly universal as atomics. But give it time).
By early 1981 things had picked up a little. The urge to reproduce having momentarily abated, she was fully occupied in stringing out a long-extended but very temporary American visa working alongside a rather shifty man called Bob Ranger in developing and patenting a fascinating new security device for the US prison service. An Anal Probe. (And remember, this was the kind of woman who always made a habit out of bringing her work home.)
I don't want to talk about it.
Well, not yet, anyway.
There are just two others; both younger and not particularly interesting. Patch. A girl. Twelve years old. Fat-cheeked. Literate. Needy. The only one among us not named after a Thurber pooch. Would you believe it? I mean how harsh. How excluding.
Then there's Feely (a slack, ill-bred Boston Bull Terrier), our smallest. Four. When he grows up he wants to be a bulimic (He thinks it's a veterinarian who specialises in livestock. He's so credulous ). He's into amateur naturalism. He is obsessed by the life story of a Japanese deer called Shiro Chan, a special doe with a strange white fringe whose story Barge came across by chance once in a poor-quality Japanese travel book. It's a tragic tale. Lovely deer: road traffic accident. Oh Lord. Don't even get me started.
That's it. So I'll toss you a few crumbs, some details, to fill in, to plump out ...
We all have bad teeth (A direct consequence of:
(a) Non-fluoridated drinking water
(b) Brushing for six years (1968-74) with only our middle fingers
(c) Never eating solids as kids.
In his mid-thirties—no doubt as a consequence of his own dreary digestive dramas—Big became really interested in nutrition and spent the bulk of the seventies developing what turned out to be an unsuccessful forerunner to the Cambridge Diet. A shake for breakfast, one for lunch. You know the story. The upshot was I didn't chew until I was ten years old. I only ever sipped. I suffered chronic muscle wastage in my jowls. My teeth crumbled. Everyone thought I had cheekbones, but it was only deprivation.)
And we live on an island off the coast of South Devon. In fact we've lived on a whole host of islands, bigger than this one, if you must know, and grander (Islands were the atolls of the seventies, but inverted. It's a geographical joke. Just let it wash over). New Zealand. The Philippines. Jersey. The Scillies. That shithole where they made South Pacific, the 1950s Technicolor army-based bikini-drama (Remember me? I was the impeccably moral girl who somehow sustained a successful military career in hair rags and prescription hotpants. Ah yes. So lifelike).
Guess what? Joking aside, I have no interest in geography. I'm a teenager. It's my foible. And anyway, if I stand on my tippy-toes and squint, I get to watch Margaret Thatcher crawling up Reagan's arse all the way over in Missouri. I'm a big girl. I see things coming.
In truth, the Devon thing is only very temporary: almost derelict Art Deco hotel up for sale. Needs renovating. Sounds romantic. Isn't. Big's sorting out the grounds as a favour to the current owner, who spends most of her year sucking extraneous segments of tangerine from the dregs of her sangria in a sumptuous corner of Bilbao.
And it's only part-island. When the tide goes out there's a nifty hourglass of sand attaching us, inexorably, to the remainder of the coastline. So during daylight, every six hours, the sightseers swarm over like fat ants across butter.
We live in squalor. We paint pottery for extra cash. It screws up your vision. It gives you the shakes. It's not at all cool.
But it's the summer, don't forget, and not half-bad weather, either. 1981. I believe I mentioned that already. And soon Marc's going to be at the top of the charts, all dressed in black and irresistibly nasal. And Jack Henry will publish his wonderful book, then start campaigning like crazy for early parole (just you watch as he gets it). And Dolly Parton is up on the big screen, doing it for the girls in her office-based bio-pic, Nine-to-Five (oh Lordy, Lordy, thank you, Dolly!).
And there will be riots in Brixton, and Royal marriages and the space shuttle Columbia: flying and orbiting. And somehow they'll check-mate the Yorkshire Ripper, and baseball will strike, and air traffic controllers, and McEnroe will win the US Open, and Karpov will reign as World Chess Champion, and in May, Bob Marley's short life will be over. Cancer.
It is the Year of the Rooster: the strangest, darkest, screwed-up time of scratching and strutting and shitting and crowing. 1981.
Jesus Christ, my fucking ears are burning.CHAPTER 2
(I have pins in my ears. Flashforward, Dumbo. If my narration gets a little hot-diggedy it's because I have pins in my ears. Seven in my right, one in my left. This is acupuncture. I'm giving up smoking. And I don't even smoke yet.
It's very messed up. You'll find out later.)
Let's get this straight, for starters: I don't have beautiful eyes. If you dare even think it (and I'm not kidding), then this whole damn business is over, buster. I've been knocked hard and I'm hurting, see? Because that asinine You Have Beautiful Eyes thing is exactly the kind of shudderingly clumsy gambit well-intentioned five-foot-seven morons really seem to enjoy trying out on a sixteen-year-old girl giant in mail-order shoes. So I don't want to hear it, okay?
And the truth is (more to the point), if you ever chanced to glance into the nappy of a five-month-old baby who'd recently swallowed a gallon of mashed banana on a seven-hour boat trip, well, that would be a fair representation of the colour of my eyes. Or if you peered into Shakin' Stevens's pituitary gland after a lengthy night out on the piss, that would be the colour of my eyes. I don't have beautiful eyes. I do have a beautiful chin. But unfortunately that's simply not the kind of thing people feel comfortable remarking upon in 1981.
It's a very dark time.
Excerpted from Five Miles From Outer Hope by Nicola Barker. Copyright © 2000 Nicola Barker. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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