"This is what horror ought to be: primal, personal, and powerful." Seanan McGuire
Paul Cornell plumbs the depths of magic and despair in Chalk, a brutal exploration of bullying in Margaret Thatcher's England.
Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with his fellow losers at school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies led by Drake will pass him by in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more; something unforgivable; something unthinkable.
Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.
In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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By Paul Cornell, Lee Harris
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2017 Paul Cornell
All rights reserved.
We're talking about the West Country of Great Britain, the farming country, below Wales and above Cornwall. Find the county of Wiltshire, then the town of Calne. Move your cursor east for about two miles along the A4 road. There's Cherhill Downs. Find some images. On almost all of them will be the Cherhill White Horse. It's one of many hill figures cut from the chalk soil on the uplands in this part of Britain. Some of them are relatively modern, some are ancient. The Uffington horse, further north, is the ancient one everyone knows. That one was cut, so the archaeologists tell us, by the nations of Iron Age people that lived in Wiltshire: the Durotriges or the Atrebates, as the Romans referred to them. They were rich. Their currency took the form of polished axe heads, never sharpened. They had vast resources, a large population and the commitment to build and maintain great monuments. The Uffington design is an indication, we're told, that they caught and tamed wild horses. The archaeologists think it's a model of what the tribes wanted to happen: this animal looks like it's running past, but actually we've captured it on this hillside.
The Cherhill White Horse, on the other hand, although it's beside an Iron Age hill fort, was cut in modern times. It looks domesticated. It turns the downs behind it from a forbidding fortress and place of suffering into the background of a painting. If the sunlight catches it at the right time of day, it's got a twinkle in its eye.
It was cut out of the chalk in 1780 on the instructions of one Dr. Christopher Allsop, who lived in Calne. According to the history books, they called Allsop 'the Mad Doctor'. They say he bellowed instructions to the men cutting the chalk from where he stood below the downs in the town of Cherhill. That's why this horse, uniquely, is designed for perspective, for a modern audience who are used to the illusion of that. I think Allsop suspected something about those downs. Perhaps he decided to put something up there to overwrite it.
So the Cherhill White Horse isn't old. But it's said locally that if a woman sits on the eye, originally made of lemonade bottles, she'll get pregnant. Nobody ever said, when I played on those downs as a child, with what, or who's the father?
It's like modern people know there's something there. That whatever it is wants to make new life. That it wants to get out. They put the horse there to be that thing, rather than think about what's been buried.
* * *
The hill fort on Cherhill Downs is now called Oldbury Castle. The archaeological records show that when they heard the Romans were coming, the Iron Age tribes built huge new fortifications. They thought they could resist. There must have come a point when, the alarm raised, the legions approaching, they left their villages and evacuated to their stronghold. They would at least go down fighting.
The Romans didn't give them the chance. They had their decisive battles elsewhere. Then they built the road that's now the A4 right past the downs. You can imagine the tribes sitting up there, besieged only by themselves, watching the Romans march past.
* * *
Up close, the walls of that old hill fort are like waves rolling through the ground. They're huge. You're hidden when you walk those ditches. The wind drops, you're insulated. If you try to run up the other side, the pebbles of chalk will slide from under your shoes, and you'll have to use your hands, your fingers jamming into the soil, for a long clamber, and you'll have to stop when you get to the top, breathing hard, only to see another ditch and another rise in front of you.
When I was a small child, there was a copse up there where the sheep sheltered. I would sit there, on a fallen tree, to catch my breath. I watched the shadows of clouds pass over the big valleys below, that were made by glaciers. Or I would go and sit on the first step of the Lansdowne Monument, built in 1845 by Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, of the family who still own the stately home down the A4 past Calne. The monument is a big spike of white stone. Or I would go and lie in the bowl barrow. It's a depression in the ground outside the bounds of the hill fort, in the form of a perfect circle. Before the First World War, everyone said it was where a keep had been built. Then it became where a zeppelin had dropped a bomb. Then it became where a German bomber had dropped a bomb.
But archaeologists tell us it's actually a grave.
At the bottom of the bowl, under the soil, lies a person, curled up like they're about to be born, on a bed of flint and charcoal, with a knife, a bow, wrist guards and a beaker full of beer. They say it's a loving burial, proof of belief in an afterlife, but I have my doubts. Perhaps the archaeologists weren't looking for the Threefold Death: the beating around the head; the wound in the throat; the suffocation. Perhaps they considered the stomach contents only in terms of food.
You'd still be able to see my family home from there. My parents still live in that house, a bungalow built by my dad. They still have my elderly Aunt Dar as their neighbour. Nearby there are a few scattered houses, a couple of villages, Calstone and Blackland, formed out of buildings that happen to lie along the same road. We got a church magazine that covered seven parishes, and they went way out into nowhere. The possibilities of the distant Salisbury Plain were always there when I was a child. I would hear thunder on a sunny day, and Mum would say that was the guns firing at the military bases up there, and I would be frightened at how loud they must be close up. Mum would hurry me inside, frightened too, as if the shells were about to start landing all around us.
How rich Mum and Dad were varied hugely when I was small. I went from private school to village school to private school. First I was the kid with the stupid accent, then I was the kid with the posh accent, then back again. That back-and-forth process, in some ways, explains everything. It's like the British class system is a magnetic field, and moving a conductor through it produces current.
* * *
Every weekday morning, eight of us, kids from Calne and its surrounding villages, would stand on the town hall steps and wait for the minibus that took us to school in the village of Fasley. We'd be in uniform. Dad would drive me in on his way to work in Lyneham. He owned an insurance business that served the RAF base. He once had a laundry in the same building, then a betting shop. The insurance was the only thing that held on. The betting shop seems to have been a failed attempt to turn a passionate hobby into a career, to turn something that lost money into something that might possibly make some. Dad was always saying he'd made some small amount of money on the horses, or on Miss World, but he never mentioned all the times he must have lost.
In my first year at Fasley, when I was eleven, columns of workers would file into the Harris pie factory opposite as we were waiting on those steps. By my second year, the factory had closed down, and that was how it stayed, empty, argued over, six floors of windows.
The kids from John Bentley, the local comprehensive school — the state school, no uniforms — walked past us every morning. We'd get gobbed at, grabbed and slammed against the doors of the town hall, called at, get bits of food thrown at us.
* * *
Fasley itself wasn't much of a village, there was nothing there really except the school. The building was an Edwardian mansion, with large windows at the front and gravel drives and playing fields. Imagine the sound of lots of kids' feet walking on gravel, and then on polished wooden floors. Chemistry and Physics were in a wooden lab down a smelly corridor that must have once been the stables. Biology was out in what must have once been servants' quarters, towards the woods. Maths was in what would have once been a guest bedroom. French and History were in the polished depths at the centre of all the stairs, near the staff room, the heart of the building, where the corridor smelt of cigarettes and soup. For PE, we went down the stairs into the cellars, all dust and moss. Bits of the school kept falling off. We were standing outside in lines at the end of break once when a gargoyle cracked from the gutter and fell. It was falling towards Mr. Rove, the headmaster, who was standing in front of us. There was one hopeful breath in from all of us as it dropped.
Mr. Rove was sure of everything. 'This will be the year in which eighty-five per cent of you get an A grade at "O" Level.' It didn't sound like an order or a challenge, but like he already knew. But much of what he said turned out to be wide of the mark. 'The only way to deal with children,' he once told my dad at a parents' evening, 'is to be certain.'
Dad told me that the same evening. 'Certain the school fees are going to go up,' he said.
The gargoyle shattered a few feet away from Mr. Rove. He glanced at it, then turned back to us without mentioning it.
* * *
There were the woods out the back.
They were surrounded by a long stone wall, which we ran alongside when we were sent on cross-country runs. The woods were a sprint back to the bell at the end of break. The soil there was what got put into boxes and sifted on biology field trips. It was one of the two places where you smoked. If you did that. I didn't.
In front of the school buildings there was an old oak, the big tree. It had large, low horizontal branches you could walk along, or sit along like girls did. The bark was polished smooth by bodies. There were initials and patterns carved so deep into the wood they must have been there for years, the tree growing around the gashes, kept there by finger after finger pressing in.
Every now and then, I'll ask people if they have impossible memories of their childhoods. Sometimes someone will recall seeing fairies, or an imaginary friend they were sure they saw and heard. Nothing I've been told matches what I remember.
My name is Andrew Waggoner. At school, like most of us boys, I was known only by my surname.
But there was also someone else. He was called Waggoner too. Waggoner was someone else, but he also had my name and my face and my place in the world. Jeans, smoking, writing stuff on your bag, wearing your shirt out, wearing your collar up, wearing your tie thin — I didn't do any of those things. Waggoner did. Waggoner also did some terrible things.
It's going to be difficult, but I'm going to try to tell you something that's true.CHAPTER 2
I should give you the full names of the five boys in Drake's lot, in order:
Vincent Lang. He was the first one. Lang was this thin kid who was right down with kids like me in the pecking order. Lang was always sniggering. He made up mocking songs and sang them under his breath, all the time. He was always laughing, always trying desperately to get higher up.
Second was Stewart Selway. He had a big round cock that he always got out and sat around with in the changing rooms. He'd point at it and talk about it, and about porn films it sounded like he was making up.
Carl Blewly used to hang around with our lot in the first year, but then didn't. He borrowed things and never returned them. He had glasses and a tight, puckered-up face, like he was always sucking on something sour.
Steven Rove was Mr. Rove the headmaster's son, fat and with big hands. He shoved faces into the mud, and slapped people, and even scratched. He never used the fact that he was the headmaster's son. In fact, whenever anyone said, that he got angry.
Then there's Drake himself. The pivot about which everything turns.
Anthony Drake was his name, but only one person ever called him Anthony. I have met nobody like him since, and everyone I've met has been like him.
In our first year, he punched a boy in the windpipe. The boy nearly died, but didn't tell. Neither did anyone who'd been watching. There was awe and tension around Drake and the boy after that. But Drake just kept going. The boy moved away when his parents did. Drake doing that never caught up with him. He kept on being who he was.
Drake was a football kid, so he hung around with Franklin and Goff and Sadiq, who didn't have to fight much. But he also hung around with Lang, Selway, Blewly and Rove. Drake had sandy hair that flopped down in a kind of random bowl. He had freckles. He looked like Tom Fucking Sawyer. He carried a knife in the bottom of his satchel. No teacher ever saw it. It was something like a Swiss Army knife, but bigger, with lots of longer and more complicated options, including a serrated blade. It was a farm knife. He used it to chop the tobacco for his roll-ups.
There. I've mentioned the knife.
Drake talked about driving tractors and stunt bikes on his dad's farm. He talked about going into the army. It felt like he was already in the army.
* * *
I talk very little about my memories of school, impossible or otherwise. People sometimes say that what they've heard about my past doesn't make sense, because I remember things in strange orders, or that I've made up funny or defensive stories that have embedded themselves in my head so deeply that I think maybe they are the memories now.
My life is full of continuity errors. I hear stories about people with 'reclaimed memories', usually of child abuse, and I should sympathise with them, should believe them, but I don't. I remember everything, I just tell lies about it. I feel perhaps they're doing the same. I am hard on people, though. Sometimes frighteningly hard.
Still, mine is not a story about child abuse.
* * *
Calne didn't have much to it apart from the factory. Dad was chairman of the Conservative Club. Mum and Dad went down there to play snooker and skittles. They won a lot of trophies.
One Christmas when I was little, Dad got me a junior snooker set. It was a small green plastic table with two small wooden cues. I walked around it with my cue held down on top of my foot, so I had to walk stiff legged. I liked twirling the cue from hand to hand. Dad tried to get me to play properly.
One night he took me down to the Club and let me into the big room at the back where there was an enormous snooker table. He told me that he'd hired the room for the whole night, which had cost three pounds — six weeks' pocket money. So we were going to have as much fun as we could. He went to get me a Britvic and a packet of Salt and Shake. There were a couple of old men there. They offered me a sup of their beer. I smiled at them. I got the chalk and chalked my cue by spinning the cue into the chalk.
I was just tall enough to be able to lean over the table. I was worried about splitting the felt with my first shot. Dad came back in with the drinks, shared a joke with the old men, asking if they'd got me drunk yet. 'Oh, ah,' one of them said, 'he's drunk like a trooper. Drunk like a trooper!'
I grinned at Dad. He came over and told me, his voice low, that the two old boys were on the Committee. Now I had to play properly. He was going to teach me. How he looked in front of the old boys was up to me. He showed me how to set up the table, the right way to arrange the balls into the triangle. He broke, and sent the white ball straight into one of the pockets. He winked at the two old lads. 'Two shots to you!'
I took my two shots, trying to remember how I was supposed to rest the cue on the backs of my knuckles. I ended up with a strange grasp, the cue hooked under one of my fingers. I liked the way that looked. Dad took my hand and hooked it out, put my hand on the table and replaced it several times, until he realised that the old lads had started to look at nothing but that. 'Do he want any help?' one of them asked. Dad said no, I'd get it. I was doing well at school, Fasley Grange actually, it looked like I was going to win the bursary this year, I was a quick learner.
'Takes after his dad,' said the other.
I made my hand into the right shape. I took my two shots. I missed every ball with the first one. Dad insisted I nicked a red. Then I sent the ball off the table. He only took one shot in return.
Excerpted from Chalk by Paul Cornell, Lee Harris. Copyright © 2017 Paul Cornell. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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