Alan McCormick was born in Mombasa and now lives with his family by the sea in the Purbecks. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for Interact Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including Confingo, Epoque Press’ e-zine and Salt’s Best British Short Stories. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize.
He also writes flash shorts in response to pictures by Jonny Voss. Their work can be seen on www.dogsbodiesandscumsters.wordpress.com
Alan has just completed Holes, his first book of non-fiction, and Wild in the Country, his second story collection.
I am a Rock
I may be an island too. Simon and Garfunkel’s song is playing at the start of year assembly. It’s 1976, the start of punk, and the spiky boys are sniggering. On stage, head-girl Melanie, straight spine, confident smile, has left the three top buttons of her polo shirt undone, either suggesting something fantastically illicit, a fragile trace of a newly bought bra, the soft line of her long neck, or merely that she’s feeling hot. 1976 was a very hot summer, still seeping its heat into all of us even in September.
When the song finishes, she addresses the shifting restless crowd, in particular the startled newbies: ‘don’t be a rock, don’t be an island, it’s okay to be scared, it’s okay to cry.’ A sob is released from deep within the hall. ‘Just, don’t go in on yourself. We’re here to help, swim over and talk to us. We won’t bite.’
Oh, bite, please bite!
Ridiculously responsible for her age, one day Melanie will run the country or at least become a BBC newsreader. From her sensible flat Clarks’ shoes, up her honed hockey brown legs, all the way to her ultra-polished straightened teeth, correct Home Counties vowels and righteous corporate stare, I’m madly in love with her.
I want to sneer at her homilies, her crass use of Paul Simon’s lyrics, but the words make my eyes smart, my cheeks prickle. I can’t help it: I was the hall crier, a loner, as shut off in my head as if I’ve been sentenced to isolation in a juvenile detention centre; an acned porn fantasiser, too scared to talk to a real girl, let alone sleep with one.
Three weeks later, Melanie is approaching me in the corridor before A’ Level English.
‘Martin, your fly’s undone,’ she says, and my skin flares chilli red as if suffering anaphylaxis.
‘Are you going to pull it up, or would you like me to help you?’
‘I want you to help me,’ I answer, before I have a chance to muzzle myself.
‘Martin, I didn’t know you had it in you.’
‘I don’t,’ I reply and for some reason that makes her laugh, and she moves closer, the sweet citrus smell of 4711, and pecks me on the cheek.
I am a Rock – Alan McCormick 2
What Melanie saw in me, I never quite understood. Maybe I represented a kind of endurance test, a Duke of Edinburgh badge (she had one, along with several Blue Peter badges) to be gained for saving a school weirdo from social oblivion, carrying me from my rocky outcrop in the middle of the ocean to the sanctuary of her small town bed, where sex would be instructional (she had precise, near clinical demands), and remorselessly energetic. After we finished she’d always pat me on the back and say ‘well done’. Then we’d lie in bed and listen to her radio, to news comedies mostly: Clement Freud and Willy Rushton jousting for the last laugh.
‘That bit was really funny,’ she’d say, in case I’d missed the joke.
My friends marvelled at the idea of us as a couple: ‘you and Melanie together, it just don’t compute, Martin. So, has she blowed you yet?’
Her friends just ranted and raged, the thought of their prodigal friend slumming it with someone who could barely speak. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ she said whilst squeezing a spot on my cheek, ‘Martin will surprise you all one day, he’s amazing!’
When I go to her house I get a taste of why she might be going out with me. In contrast to Melanie’s cool and collected public persona, home is a mess. Her father might as well be dead as he’s never there, and her mother, oh God, her mother:
‘Ah, Martin, you must be the boyfriend. Pleasantries over, are you fucking my daughter? Because if you are, good on you. Congratulations are due to all concerned, I’d say.’
‘Mum, shut up, please.’
‘See how she talks to me, Martin? No respect for anyone, don’t say I haven’t warned you.’
‘Come on, Martin, let’s go upstairs.’
‘And fuck like little bunnies?’ her mother calls after us as we climb the stairs.
In the bedroom I put my arms around her. ‘Is she always like this?’ I ask.
‘When she drinks, so, yes, she’s always like this.’
‘Yes please, and make as much noise as you like.’
I am a Rock – Alan McCormick 3
It’s 2000, all the ticker tape and party confetti from Millenium festivities have been swept away, as Melanie and I are about to celebrate sixteen years as a married couple. ‘Celebrate’ is the norm for the passing of such a milestone but it’s probably not quite the right term to use in our case – ‘millstone’ comes to mind.
We have two sons, Tarquin and Paul (after Paul Simon). Tarquin is fifteen and the eldest, and where Melanie and I are both tall and slight, he carries the nickname ‘Larder’ at school; and ‘Tank’ at his rugby club, where he plays in the back row for the adult first team. He shouts ‘C’mon’ as he barrels into the house, high-fiving me every time he sees me.
I am scared of Tarquin, and he knows it. A boundary was crossed just before his thirteenth birthday, when I was arguing with Melanie in the kitchen about whether we should buy him the most expensive rugby boots or a cheaper, more modestly branded but equally good pair. I was angling for the cheaper ones. The argument became heated and Melanie suddenly screamed out in frustration. Tarquin charged into the room, saw his mother in tears and strode over and slapped me hard across both cheeks.
‘Leave Mummy alone,’ he shouted.
Mummy said nothing and Tarquin left the room, still glaring at me.
‘Not again! A man never makes a woman cry unless he really has to,’ he continued from the other room. ‘I’ll be listening and watching from now on. You, Sir, are on borrowed time!’
Paul is two years younger. He’s fragile, unusually quiet and ‘artistic’ – a term Melanie likes to pun with ‘autistic’. ‘A nauseating drip’ according to his brother but he doesn’t drip much near me: ‘a selective mute’ (Melanie’s diagnosis), who has elected never to talk to me.
Melanie and I are experiencing what a magazine writing about a celebrity couple might describe as ‘relationship upheavals’. The conservative well-bred construct she built to survive her childhood has fallen apart. I am a disappointment to her (I was never amazing, that was a lie, and never surprised anyone), an easy outlet for her ire, particularly when she hits the bottle.
‘You are so bloody useless, Martin. I can’t tell you how close I am to leaving you or smothering you in your sleep.’ When she talks like that she (inevitably) begins to sound and look like her mother.
I am a Rock – Alan McCormick 4
I go to a friend for advice. ‘Ooh, poor you, Martin. Sounds monstrous. Get her to a psychiatrist or just leave,’ he says. Rod is older than me but if I was hoping for the measured voice of experience, he’s the last person I should be speaking to. Melanie and he have never liked each other and he’s a recent divorcee experiencing a mid-life crisis. His predictable life choice after the break-up of his marriage has been to sleep with his much younger secretary. ‘Never felt better, keeps me up all night, wanting it. “Ooh, give it to me, big boy” she begs. I’m chafing down there all the bloody time, I can barely pee straight, and I ache everywhere but what a lovely ache it is.’
It all sounds painful, the word ‘chafe’ which he repeatedly uses (‘chafing, Martin, bloody chafing’) is ugly and reminds me of something you’d get after an overheated game of squash, whilst his misdirected peeing surely marks the onset of prostate cancer.
‘Chafing, Martin, I can’t tell you how rough it is but boy oh boy, what a girl!’
‘Shut up, Rod, it’s cancer, you have cancer.’
So, here we all are. Awful, aren’t we?
But it hadn’t always been like this.
Four years earlier, the country climaxing with 1996 European Championship fever (‘it’s coming, football’s coming home!’), and I’m driving the family down a long narrow country lane. If a car comes in the other direction I have to carefully manoeuvre ours of the way. Melanie is usually an accomplished and vocal back-seat-driver but today she’s curiously quiet. The boys, who would normally take her critique as a cue to up the ante, to begin their own catcalls, are also miraculously silent. I drive expertly for once and we arrive unscathed at the pub car park at Barcombe Mills.
We ‘re here to hire rowing boats to take down a tributary of the River Ouse. I’ve been dreading it, anticipating unremitting sulks for keeping the boys from a key match (England are playing Holland in the quarterfinals today), my boating skills being ridiculed, tears (Melanie’s words can still make me sob), and the day descending into an abyss. But the children are excited and can’t wait to get on the boats.
I am a Rock – Alan McCormick 5
We opt to hire two, with Melanie and I in one, the boys in another. They shoot away, Tarquin leading and encouraging James to oar in time with him, James quickly falling into an easy rhythm, both working together to change direction around the bends. Melanie and I are as incompetent as they are expert, and we fall about laughing as the bow of our boat, first, snags the drooping branches of a large tree, then hits the bank, catapulting us in the opposite direction from the boys. They row back to us, startled at first by our chaos and merriment, but when they see we were actually laughing together, they start laughing too.
‘Come on, useless bloody parents,’ says Tarquin softly. ‘Let James and me show you how it’s done.’
‘I wish you would because your father and I’ – and she winks at me – ‘have no bloody idea!’
In 2004, Tarquin suffers a catastrophic fracture of his right leg during a game, just as he’s about to make his breakthrough into the England Rugby B team. After several operations to re-build his leg, he’s lucky to walk again but his sporting career is over. He begins to self-harm, going at it with customary gusto, gouging his legs, chest and arms with any blade, sharp or blunt (oddly worse somehow) that he can lay his hands on. After becoming addicted to opiate painkillers, his rugby club pays for him to go to a residential addiction centre.
He’s been there for nine weeks and Paul has come down from university to join us for the fortnightly family therapy meeting. University must be doing something to Paul because I think he mouthed ‘hi’ to me when he first saw me. Melanie and he go to get drinks and I find Tarquin sitting waiting in the family meeting room. He looks smaller, becoming vulnerable as he shrinks, his scarred limbs, and skewed withered right leg half the size of his left.
‘Hi, Tank,’ I say.
‘I’m not Tank or Larder anymore; I thought you’d have got that by now. And, whatever possessed you and Mum to call me Tarquin, but I’m not him anymore either.’
I am a Rock – Alan McCormick 6
‘What should I call you?’
‘Son, call me son.’
‘You want me to call you son, son?’
‘Just son will do.’
‘You don’t have to keep saying it.’
I wish I could, but, however awkward it sounds, I like saying it too. I look at him and he smiles. My son smiling at me and I smile back.
Beatrice, the therapist comes in.
‘Has he told you that he’s been writing poetry? It’s very good.’
The ‘p’ word is instantly threatening but I remind myself that it’s my ‘son’ writing, not Tarquin wielding a pen like a hammer.
Paul and Melanie join us in the room.
‘Are you ready to share any of your poetry with your family?’
‘When they’re ready,’ he replies with a smirk.
The session reaches the stage where children are invited to direct comments at their parents, who are not sanctioned to reply.
‘Mum, you need to get a hold of yourself. You’re not your mother and you need to stop drinking,’ says my eldest son with newfound wisdom. I look at Beatrice for recognition or sympathy (I’m not sure which, I just want her to like me) but she steadfastly won’t meet my eye, and looks instead at my son, and then at Melanie.
‘Mum, you need to be nicer, even to Dad,’ chimes in Paul. I take this unexpected revelation as a cue to smile weakly at Beatrice again (definitely wanting sympathy now) but she stares right through me as if I’m not there.
Then it’s my turn to listen.
‘Dad, sometimes it feels as if you’ve left the building; not dead yet but not present,’ offers my eldest son.
‘A vacuum,’ adds Melanie.
‘Parents shouldn’t speak now,’ advises Beatrice, whilst glaring at me for some reason.
My eldest son continues: ‘you’re like a tunnel that everyone drives though.’
Beatrice nods, and I want to ask if anyone has put their lights on. Then she addresses Paul: ‘What would you like to say to your father?’
I am a Rock – Alan McCormick 7
He looks at her. ‘I’d tell him that I need to keep my distance and that I’m afraid I’ll end up like him if I don’t.’
‘You need to look at your father and tell him that, not me.’
He does as he’s told. ‘Dad, I don’t want to be like you.’
It’s the first time he’s looked directly at me and talked to me in years.
‘Thank you,’ I say under my breath.
Later, I find Paul sitting on a bench outside the entrance to the centre. I ask if it’s okay to sit next to him.
He nods and talks first, his words miraculous to me: ‘Dad, I don’t think any of us see you as a tunnel to drive through. It’s what happens here, we’re seduced by therapy-speak. Tarquin’s been in here too long, that’s all.’
‘I don’t know, maybe your brother has a point.’
‘He may. Point is, have we ever been happy, Dad?’
‘At Barcombe Mills?’
‘Oh, yes.’ And he smiles.
As a woman passes us to enter the centre she whispers, ‘two peas in a pod,’ and disappears quickly inside.
After leaving the retreat we drop Paul at the station to return to university, and drive home. We walk into an empty house, its atmosphere deadened and quiet. We watch some aimless television in an attempt to relax and distract ourselves. For the first night I can remember, Melanie doesn’t take a drink. In bed we don’t, can’t talk, and even though she’s more restless than usual, she eventually falls asleep.
Hours later and however hard I try to, I just can’t sleep. Melanie slumbers on, her body coiled in a foetal position facing away from me. She looks so quiet and still that I get up and go round to her side of the bed to check she’s still breathing, just as I’d done with the boys each night throughout their childhood.
She stirs. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’
‘You were amazing at school. That speech you made.’
‘God! What are you on?’
‘I don’t know, I’ve been thinking, that’s all.’
‘Well, don’t, it doesn’t suit you.’
‘You look so lovely asleep.’
‘I think I preferred you at sixteen with your zip undone. At least it was intriguing.
‘Nothing to thank me for,’ she says suddenly laughing, burying her head under the quilt so it shakes, the sound of her laughter lowered, as if she’s going underground. ‘And I was alive when you were the diligent nurse, but maybe you should have checked yourself first.’
‘I’m always checking myself,’ I say, disappearing under the covers too.
‘Oh, I see what you’re doing! Now, why don’t you take these off and make yourself useful?’
‘Is your mother downstairs?’
‘Mother is always downstairs’
‘Noisy or quiet?’
‘Yell all you like.’
She bites. I want to scream. And so I do.