Gary McMahon


For Charlie, my Best Boy:

I can’t wait to see what kind

of man you grow up to be

“The rest is silence.”

Hamlet, Act 5 scene 2 by William Shakespeare
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” — Old English Nursery Rhyme (circa 1811)



THE SUN IS a bronze penny hanging motionless in the sky as the boys toil beneath its hazy glare, laughing and sweating and having fun. The kind of fun that they will never have again, once they go beyond a certain age: kid fun, all happiness and innocence and mercifully free of the sharp edges adults develop, even in their play.

It’s been a long day for the Three Amigos — a typical English summer day, filled with running and play- fighting and sweet, long bike rides along the old railway line that runs along the bottom of the Embankment, with the gang pretending they are on their way to somewhere special — a place other than this one, with its embittered people and grey concrete promises.

But now, late in the afternoon, the bikes have been put away and the three boys are planning to build something in the trees at the north edge of Beacon Green, just up the hill from the old Near Grove railway station: a high platform, the beginnings of a proposed tree house.

Marty brought back the necessary tools from the drawers in the garage when he returned from a tense lunch with his perpetually warring parents, and Brendan stayed behind while the others returned home to eat so that he could gather enough wood for the project. Brendan never goes home for lunch: his father is dead and his mother drinks too much, even during the day. Especially during the day. Simon, the third member of the group, often feels guilty that he never invites his friend home for a meal, but the tension between his own parents is too uncomfortable to inflict upon anyone else. They are going through a ‘bad spell’; that’s what they call it, as if it’s the result of some kind of dark magic. As far as he can tell, he once told Brendan, their entire marriage is a bad spell — one that’s been going on since before he was born.

“Get that bit over there,” says Marty, the muscle of the gang. He points towards the splintered remains of a timber pallet and waits for the other two to walk over, drag it from where it lies half-hidden under the bushes, and then carry it over to the site of their construction project.

“Jesus, it’s heavy.” Brendan is very thin; his elbow bones jut out like twigs and his face always looks starved.

“Yeah, but that’s because you’re a wimp.” Simon laughs at his friend and gives a tug on his end of the wooden pallet, causing Brendan to stumble. Brendan sticks out his tongue; it is a child’s riposte, lacking sophistication even for a ten-year-old.

“Come on, then. Let’s get this thing built!” Marty is standing with one foot resting on the mouldy trunk of a fallen tree. He has his hands on his hips, and he pouts as if he is waiting to be kissed. To the other boys, he looks strangely alluring: like an asexual being that’s been trapped somewhere between childhood and the great unexplored country of adulthood. A tree nymph or a woodland elf: some mythical being from a story book, rather than the streets of a northeastern council estate.

“Yes, Miss!” Brendan’s voice carries through the silent trees, disturbing a ground-dwelling bird or a small mammal from its hiding place. The animal darts through the undergrowth, rustling the leaves and branches, as Brendan and Simon let loose with a brace of laughter.

Marty shakes his head and slowly lets his arms drop to his sides, abandoning the pose. “Piss off!” he shouts, much too late to salvage his dignity.

The boys fall quiet for a while, occupied by the simple task of sorting out pieces of wood. They discard ruined, shattered pieces of timber and form a pile of decent material that can be re-used. The sun moves slowly down the sky, tracing the day’s journey towards early evening. The sky seems to shimmer above the scene, like the underside of a distant body of water.

Brendan stops for a rest. He walks across to the nearest tree and sits down at the base of its trunk, retrieving a can of pop from his jacket, which lies grubby and creased on the ground. He opens the tab and drinks deeply, his eyes closed and his head tilted upwards. His fringe falls back to reveal a forehead pocked with livid acne and absently he scratches his thigh with his free hand. It’s a displacement trick he learned long ago — scratch another part of your body rather than the place you really want to scratch, and pretend that you’ve eased the discomfort.

Brendan opens his eyes as he lowers the can, scanning for a moment the green expanse of Beacon Green which lies beyond the line of the trees. He narrows his eyes, leaning forward with an intent look on his face. He licks his lips, stray droplets of pop making them sticky and sweet. Close to his position, gouged into the bole of the nearest tree, someone has used a penknife to write a single nonsense word: Loculus.

Brendan studies the hand-carved word. It means nothing to him, yet something inside him stirs. The spotty skin on his back crawls, as if tiny feet are walking between his shoulder blades. His forehead begins to itch.

His eyes widen. He has seen something, some kind of movement, way behind the carved tree; an image that he believes does not belong here. He begins to stand but pauses partway to his feet, staring at a point beyond the trees. What was it? Did he even see anything at all, or is he just tired?

Staring in wonder, he watches a tall, dark figure as it passes between the final row of trees, taking short, dainty strides — almost skipping along — and facing forward. The figure is wearing a long black overcoat that reaches down to its ankles. On its head is perched a strange black cap — like a flattened top hat, but with a wider, floppier brim. Beneath the hat is a sort of black snood or cowl that falls down the back of the head, protecting the rear of the neck.

Brendan wants to call out to his friends, but something has robbed him of his voice. He crouches there, with one hand pressed flat against the base of the nearest tree, supporting him, and the other still gripping the empty pop can. He watches the figure as it passes from tree to tree, visible for seconds at a time as it dances gaily between the broad dark trunks.

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