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Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter. He lies down to hear hymns of the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detritivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fibreglass bath, stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.
Tetchy Papa Toothwort should never sleep in the afternoon; he doesn't know who he is.
He wants to kill things, so he sings. It sounds slow-nothing like tarmac bubbles popping in a heatwave. His grin takes a sticky hour. Cheering up, he chatters in the voice of a cultured fool to the dry papery wings and under-bark underlings, to the marks he left here last year, to the mice and larks, voles and deer, to the quaint memory of himself as cyclically reliable, as part of the country curriculum. He slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees. He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt, but nothing works. He pauses as an exhaust pipe, then squirms into the shape of a rabbit snare, then a pissed-on nettle into pink-strangled lamb. He plucks a blackbird from the sky and cracks open the yellow beak. He peers into the ripped face as if it were a clean pond. He flings the bird across the forest stage, stands up woodlot bare, bushy, and stamps his spalted feet. His body is a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers carved in the surface. He clomps through the wood, wide awake and hungry for his listening.
Only one thing can cheer up crotchety Toothwort and that's his listening.
He slides across the land at precisely the speed of dusk and arrives at his favourite spot. The village sits up pretty to greet him, sponged in half-light. He climbs into the kissing gate. He is invisible and patient and about the size of a flea. He sits still.
Here it is.
Human sound, tethered to his interest, dragged across the field, sucked into his great need.
A lovely time of day.
Now it is around him, he reaches in and delicately pulls out threads, a conductor coaxing sound out of an orchestra,
expertly, unhurried, like time slowly acting death upon an organism, little by little, listening. He hears his village turning itself over towards its bedtime,
Dead Papa Toothwort exhales, relaxes, lolls inside the stile, smiles and drinks it in, his English symphony,
he swims in it, he gobbles it up and wraps himself in it, he rubs it all over himself, he pushes it into his holes, he gargles, plays, punctuates and grazes, licks and slurps at the sound of it, wanting it fizzing on his tongue, this place of his,
Dead Papa Toothwort chews the noise of the place and waits for his favourite taste, but he hasn't got to it yet,
and then he hears it, clear and true, the lovely sound of his favourite.
It would have the head of a dolphin and the wings of a peregrine, and it would be a storm-warning beast, watching the weather while we sleep.
Dead Papa Toothwort hugs himself with diseased larch arms and dribbles cuckoo spit down his chin. He grins.The head of a dolphin and the wings of a peregrine! Surgical yearnings invade him, he wants to chop the village open and pull the child out. Extract him. Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key.A storm-warning beast, watching the weather ...He listens to the boy for a while, his bedtime thoughts, his goodnight words to his mother, his waking mind trickling into visionary sleep. Then Dead Papa Toothwort leaves his spot and wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins, wearing a tarpaulin gloaming coat, drunk on the village, ripe with feeling, tingling with thoughts of how one thing leads to another again and again, time and again, with no such thing as an ending
In came the sound of a song, warm on his creaturely breath.
My singing child,
bringing me gifts.
A second or two before I realise it's not him.
I sit at work in the city and the thought of him existing a sixty-minute train ride from me, going about his day in the village, carrying his strange brain around, seems completely impossible. It seems unlikely, when I'm at work, that we had a child and it is Lanny. If my parents were here they'd surely say, No Robert, you've dreamt him. Children aren't like that. Go back to sleep. Go back to work.
His school report said, 'Lanny has an innate gift for social cohesion. He will often calm a fraught classroom with a single well-timed joke or song.' I see, objectively, that this must be the case. It sounds like Lanny. But where did his gifts come from? Do I have the same gifts? What or who is supposed to manage and regulate Lanny and his gifts? Oh fuck, it's us. Who can have children and not go completely mad?
'Lanny is especially gifted with language and his World Book Day Tarka the Otter acrostic was shown to the headmaster and given an outstanding plus-stage gold elm sticker.'
What? What are any of you talking about? I want a sticker.
At that time I was into finding and cleaning the skeletons of dead things. Mostly birds. I would pull them apart, coat them in gold leaf, reassemble them wrongly and suspend them from wire frames. Little mobiles of badly made birds. I'd done a dozen or so. The gallery wanted something to show. To sell.
I was also taking casts of different barks. I was setting them in boxes with scraps of text.
Some drawings. Some half-decent prints. Sets. Quiet stuff.
She came down to the studio one morning and brought me a branch with two perfect arms. She'd seen a carved man I'd done.
We'd gone from chatting in the street now and then to her popping in for a tea once or twice a week. Sometimes with Lanny, sometimes alone. They'd only lived in the village a year or two.
She'd seen a rough-cut man I'd done, a Christ without a cross, and she'd seen the possibility of another in this fallen branch.
You are most kind, I said. Pleasure, Pete, she said.
I liked her. Good for a natter. Warm, with a good eye for things. I often showed her my work and she had interesting things to say. She made me laugh, but she knew when to piss off. Seemed to know when I wasn't sociable.
She was an actor, had done plays, a bit of TV. She told stories about all that. About all those arseholes in that business. It never sounded a million miles from the art world back in the day.
She didn't miss the acting work but she got bored sometimes, when Lanny went to school, when her husband went in to the city. She was writing a book, she said. A murder thriller.
Sounds bloody horrid, I said.
It is very bloody and horrid, she said, but thrilling.
Often she would sit with me while I worked. She'd bought one of my pieces, without me knowing, from the gallery. One of my good big reliefs. I said I would have given her mate's rates if I'd known and she said, Exactly, Pete.
I liked her.
She used to fiddle with whatever was lying around.
Bits of wire. A pencil. Some twigs.
Make something, by all means, I once said.
Oh no I'm hopeless with visual things, she said.
And I remember thinking what a strange and sad thing that was to say.
Hopeless, with visual things.
Someone must have said something to her to make a notion like that stick.
I thought of my mum. Someone said to my mother once when she was very young that she couldn't hold a tune. So she never sang or whistled in her life. I can't sing, she'd say.
Wasn't til a lot later after she was gone that I recognised that for the preposterous notion it was. Can't sing.
So she's sat at my table poking crumbled lichen into a pile while we chat about the new glass cube monstrosity being built on Sheepridge Hill.
I'm watching her.
First she makes a neat shape. Flattens it. Divides in two. Pinches it into two lines. Nudges the two lines in and out of contact so she's got a little row of green-grey teeth. Pats it down rectangular and uses her nail to make the edges clean, then she dabs a perfect circle in the middle with a wet fingertip.
Hopeless with visual things, but sitting there keeping a small pile of dried moss moving into half a dozen lovely shapes, absently making pictures on my kitchen table.
She looks up at me and says she knows I'm busy and she knows I'm famous, but if it isn't too stupid an idea could I give young Lanny some art lessons.
Art lessons: bollocks, I thought.
I told her that much as I liked the lad and enjoyed my chats with him, I couldn't imagine anything worse than teaching art.
I'm a miserable solitary bastard and can hardly hold a pencil, I said.
And she laughed, and said she understood, and then off she drifted in that nice way she has. Responsive to the light, I would call it. The type of person who is that little bit more akin to the weather than most people, more obviously made of the same atoms as the earth than most people these days seem to be. Which explains Lanny.
So she left, that morning, and I sat and breathed in the atmosphere of her visit and thought a lot about women growing up, being a girl in the world, and I missed my mum then, and my sister, and some women I've known, and I carefully laid tiny flakes of gold onto the skull of a robin and hummed 'Old Sprig of Thyme' to myself.
In came the sound of a song, warm on his creaturely breath, and he snuggled against me, climbing up on my lap, wrapping himself around my neck.
I said, Lanny enters stage left, singing, stinking of pine tree and other nice things.
I thought, Please don't get too grown-up for these hugs, my little geothermal bubba.
If I get the 7.21 I miss breakfast with Lanny, but I avoid Carl Taylor and usually get a seat. If I get the 7.41 I'll see Lanny but Carl Taylor will find me on the platform and I'll have to hear about Susan Taylor and the clever Taylor girls and which subjects they're doing for GCSE and we'll probably have to stand, someone's armpit, someone's fold-up bike, Carl Taylor's trundling newsfeed mixing with someone's tinny headphone music.
Down the village street, hit the bowl of the crossroads good and fast for a belly wobble, up Ghost Pilot Lane, through Ashcote, dual carriageway all the way into town. Assuming there are no tractors or cyclists I can be at the station in under twenty minutes. My personal best is fourteen. If I slow down on Ghost Pilot Lane there might be deer on the road and I can stop for a minute and watch them. Or I can honk to warn them I'm coming and hit 70 or 80, windows down to blast myself awake and enjoy the car. I may as well enjoy the car, it cost me enough and it spends most of its life parked, waiting for me.
Sometimes, if I've driven fast, I have five minutes in the station car park and I sit and talk to my vehicle. Thank you, I'll say. Pleasure doing business with you Sir. Nice one, mate. Bucephalus, you absolute beauty you're the best horse ever. This is what commuting is. Small pleasures coaxed from playing the routine like a game. Little tricks of the part-time countryman. It might be soul-destroying. I might be a bit pitiful. I don't know.
I have a drawing by Lanny stuck above my desk. It's me in a cape, flying above a skyline and it says, 'Where does Dad go every day? Nobody knows.'
Pete knocked on the door.
Got past old Peggy with no interrogation.
Congratulations, Pete, but she'll get you on the way back. She's worried about people feeding the kites. Cup of tea?
He looked down at his boots and tugged his beard.
I won't. But look. I was thinking after you left the other night. I was thinking I'm a miserable old bastard, and what on earth's to stop me being less of one. I wouldn't know how to teach and I hated being taught myself. But if what you're asking is whether Lanny can come and sit in my kitchen, use my paper, draw with me, chat about what I do, then why not. He's a lovely fella and I could do with the company. It might even do me some good. So how about it, after school Mondays or Wednesdays?
Oh you're wonderful Pete. And you'd let us pay you?
Absolutely not. No fucken way, dear. Get your rich husband to buy one of my fiddly gold birds when they go up next year.
Well, you're very kind. Lanny will be so pleased.
Pete crunched off down the driveway. He raised a backward hand and shouted:
Wednesday four o'clock. I shall be waiting!
DEAD PAPA TOOTHWORT
Dead Papa Toothwort lies underneath a nineteenth-century vicar's wife and fiddles with the roots of a yew in her pelvis. He loves the graveyard. He listens ...
Dead Papa Toothwort remembers when they built this church,
stone from afar, flint from round here, timber from these very woods, local boys, bring down the bodgers and set them to pews, set them to floral ornaments, a hymn board with ivy corners, an altar table with – yes indeed, there he is, a Green Man's head, grinning at the baptised and married, the bored and the dead, biting down on limewood belladonna,
He has been represented on keystones, decorative stencils, tattoos, the cricket club logo, he has been every English trinket and trash, moral for cash, mascot and curse. He has been in story form in every bedroom of every house of this place. He is in them like water. Animal, vegetable, mineral. They build new homes, cutting into his belt, and he pops up adapted, to scare and define. In this place he is as old as time.
We commence our lessons.
We are indoors because mile-wide slabs of rain romp across the valley.
Palette-knife smears of bad weather rush past the window.
Two chairs pulled up to the kitchen table.
Snug. Fire on. Radio 3.
Two pads, two pencils, a tumbler of juice, a mug of tea.
Ah, Lanny, my friend, look at these blank pages. Don't you feel like God at the start of the ages? You could do anything.
So GO! I said. Draw me a man.
Any. Just a person. Something human. I tossed a little coin in my head between tree and man and it landed man, so let's start with that.
His shoulders roll over, right slightly higher as his arms hug the page and he starts to scratch away, with a soft hum-come-whisper of half words and trickling bits of melody. Concentrating. He's not a rusher.
He scratches his head, sits up and slides the drawing over. Furrowed brow.
Right, let's look. Yup, I'd say that was a man all right. Nicely done. Now let's talk our way around him a bit and see what's what.
The grimace of concentration is gone and Lanny's face is wide open, curious and listening. His eyes are like spring hornbeam, a very fresh green.
Right, Lanny. Where do your arms come out? You've got this bloke's arms coming out the side of his body, what do you reckon?
We turn sideways and spread our arms, two aeroplanes at the kitchen table. Lanny smiles and nods down to his shoulder and then starts a new pair of arms emerging from the right height, not out the poor bastard's centre.
Now the head, Lanny. Might I ask you to consider your own self and see if there's anything between your head and your chest?
He grins and points to his neck, feigning discovery.
We laugh. We're pleased. We chink drinks and raise a toast to the better-looking image of a man.
Long after he's gone, after that first lesson, I sit and think.
I try and recreate the noises Lanny makes, his part-song chant:
'Limmon aah, bitter car, lemmen arr, fennem arr, mennem are, witter kah, fitterkarr, but chakka but chakka but chakka, limmon aah ...'
I suppose it's some TV theme tune or pop song I don't know. Maybe it's just Lanny taking things from wherever he's been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.
Breeze-obedient balls of dust and fluff huddle in the corners of the kitchen.
I remember how grey I felt in the busy days, when the work was selling suddenly. When people wanted things from me all the time. Knew my name. London. And I feel my way back before that, to days of clarity like this. To being a boy.
I remember an elderly lady once showed me my own drawing of a man and asked me to consider where, anatomically, my arms began.
That lady is a long time dead.
English seasons roll out of bed.
Lanny dances into the room, singing, smelling of the outdoors.
Dooo yoooou know, he says, that clownfish are all born male and when the queen dies one of the men turns into a female and becomes the new queen? So what came first, male or queen?
I'd say queen, funny bean.
I wrap him up in a hug.
What are you up to, Mum?
I don't answer, and he wanders off, tracing some current of curiosity, following his little hunches or queries back out into the garden.
Excerpted from "Lany"
Copyright © 2019 Max Porter.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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