Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

More's Utopia

 

Five o’clock.  I head upstairs into the Sixth Form common room and see that it’s deserted—except for Christensen and O’Hagan, now playing chess.  No doubt they’ve been on detention and spent the last hour copying out an instructional chapter from the life of the College’s sainted founder—Lafayette’s standard punishment these last six years—and are waiting around for the old priest to stride manfully out of his office in the far corner of the room and evaluate their efforts.  Even with his back to me, head down, hunched over the board, O’Hagan reminds me somehow of the curly-haired pig that he so resembles from the front.  Christensen, his features sharp and blighted by a blizzard of acne, looks off vacantly—he must be ahead in the game—and, although he sees me when I enter the room, he pretends he hasn’t.

We both know that I have stolen the glory that should be rightfully be his, if he wasn’t such a fuck-up, that is.

The cleverest fuck-up in the world.

I surprise him—and myself—by wandering over towards them, on the pretext of checking out their game.  O’Hagan looks up at me, betrayed only by an infinitesimal lag before his expression changes to the usual look of contempt he offers the world.

Everybody present thinks I have really just come over to gloat. 

“Well, well,” O’Hagan says, “if it isn’t the Most High Boy, Saint Stevie.  We are honoured, nay, humbled, O Exalted One, by your presence at our detention.  Perchance, do you bear us a message, a missive, from the Almighty, or his dog?” He glances back at Christensen for approval.  “Or, no, say it isn’t so, miraculum horribilis, you’re suffering a detention of your own?”

“Fuck off, Trotter,” I say to him.  “That’ll be the day I’m ever a member of your naughty boys’ club.  You might have heard, I’ve got better things to do than spend my time copying out The Lives of the Saints.   And by the way, checkmate in two moves.  You lose.” 

O’Hagan looks down at the board, reddening.  I detect the faintest shadow of a smile, the brief upturn of the lips, on Christensen’s otherwise impassive face.  My eyes wander to the two scripts lying on the table and, immediately, are drawn to the title of Christensen’s paper, which, even in his crabbed handwriting, leaps out from the page.  I pick it up and read it in full.  I look at him.

“You’re not thinking of handing this in?” I say after a moment, for once actually shocked.  “That’ll be it, you know that?  You’ll be finished.”

Christensen merely stares back at me without expression.  O’Hagan grabs it off me and starts to read through it.  He guffaws, scrunching up his already tiny piggy-eyes until they practically disappear into the ample pink flesh of his face. 

“Priceless!” he cries, chortling breathlessly. “Oh,  priceless!”

He fixes Christensen with a wild stare and reads aloud:

 “‘The dumbest fuck I ever laid.’  How far do you agree with Luther’s assessment of St. Thomas More’s intellectual prowess? Illustrate with examples from his period in the Chancellorship!”

It is all O’Hagan can do to finish the second sentence before he dissolves into a helpless spasm of silent, shaking laughter—almost like a genuine fit.  I turn to Christensen.

“You can’t want to go out like this,” I say.  “No matter what happened with your brother, that was just how some—”  

But I can’t bring myself to finish my own sentence, he regards me so coldly.  Perhaps not even coldly—indifferently. “Wait, there’s more,” O’Hagan says, recovering himself a little, chuckling.  But he doesn’t get the chance to share any more blasphemous pearls with us as we hear the loud click of Lafayette’s office door opening and know that he will be standing beside us in a matter of seconds.  I take no pleasure in what I know is about to happen and feel truly sorry to have to witness the miserable scene that will surely follow.  We all stand up.  Christensen surreptitiously takes his “work” back from his misguided crony. 

He turns to me. “All these years, Matter-Not,” he says, without a hint of trepidation, “you’ve never once had to face a Lafayette detention, have you?”

I shake my head.  He turns away, saying no more.  Lafayette himself is approaching and, despite his advanced years, he still cuts a commanding, indeed, almost supernatural, figure as he glides towards us through the gloom of the common room in his long black robes.  Nosferatu, with small, round, blue-lensed glasses.  He appears surprised to find me here, even though he had asked that I come and see him today after finishing my stint as Library Prefect.  He nods to me, then faces the offending pair.  I would rather be anywhere than here right now and want to move away but, almost as if I am paralysed by the situation, I find I stay where I am, watching.

Lafayette extends one hand in O’Hagan’s direction.  “Give me your detention, boy,” he says.  When O’Hagan hands it over, Lafayette doesn’t even look at it but, in a single movement, tears it in two from top to bottom, his blue-tinted eyes all the while fixed on the target of his humiliation.  Then, he passes back the sundered script and repeats the exercise, with equally full solemnity, with Christensen.  Afterwards, he stands regarding them for a moment, before he abruptly turns away without a word and heads back to his office.  I take it I am to follow his retreating figure.

Before I go Christensen’s eye catches mine for a second.  It is an odd look he gives me, seeming to suggest that I am in some way now his accomplice, implicated in his silly teenage misdemeanour, and it leaves me with an odd feeling.  I find I’m fighting the urge to laugh.  I turn but glance back at Christensen as I go. 

“Matter-Not,” he says to me urgently, in virtually a whisper, “try to keep the stupid old sod talking in there for as long as you can.”

He nods, as if to reinforce the seriousness of his strange request.

I shrug, having no possible understanding of what he might mean by that remark, or why he might be saying it now, to me, and follow on behind Lafayette towards his office, who has by now almost gained the door.  I walk between the empty tables and chairs and when I pass the statue of St. Thomas More that stands at the head of the room replete in its three-cornered hat and high-collared ceremonial robes, I can’t help but feel a sly chuckle in my heart at the thought of Christensen’s off-joke at the founder’s expense.  I reach the door and see Lafayette turning in a small circle by the tall bookcase in his office, like a dog before it lies down, looking for once a little discomfited, as if, perhaps, embarrassed.  It’s possible he has something in his hand, but the room is severely gloomy, as usual lit only by a bright desk-lamp, and I can’t see what it might be.    

“Ah, Stevie, my boy,” he says, motioning for me to enter.  “Come in, boy, come in.  Do shut the door behind you, there.”

He sits down in his old leather chair and I close the door.  When I turn back his hands are empty, free. 

“You wanted to see me, Father?” I ask redundantly.

“Yes, Stevie, I did.  Sit down.  Yes, Michaelmas is all but over now and I wanted to see you before the long Christmas holidays as without a doubt the Lent Term will be a very busy term—for you in particular, if you see what I mean—and once we all get caught up in that, well, there won’t be time to turn around for any of us, I shouldn’t think.”

“Yes, Father,” I say, nodding. 

He pauses.  “So, the thing is, I wanted to have a word with you now before the holidays while you still have time, space, what have you, to think.  By that I mean to do some serious thinking, Stevie, about serious things.  About your future, what you want to do with your life.  About what you feel you must do with your life.”

He stares at me, portentously, through those disconcerting blue lenses. “Of course,” he goes on, after a moment, “we’re all tremendously proud of your performance in the OEE. Tremendously gratified, as we all are here, to see one of our boys do so well.  There can be no doubt yours can be a glittering future.  But, as we know, Stevie, there are other possible futures, if you see what I mean?  Futures every bit as glittering in their own way as that awaiting you at Caius.  Do you see?”

I look away, over towards the desk.  Through the arched-window, beyond the circle of bright light thrown by the desk-lamp, the blackness of the early evening sky is already impenetrable. 

“I don’t know, Father,” I say eventually.  “It is something I’ve thought about, off and on, I confess, in my time here.  But, in the end, I have to say, it just doesn’t feel like I have the calling, like it’s me.”

“Yes, yes,” he says slowly, nodding, but it is as though he has already discounted my answer and is merely humouring me until I inevitably see sense.  “Well, no one is asking you to decide anything right now, my laddie,” he adds at length, “just to keep your mind open to the possibilities.”  He leans forward towards me.  “By the way, I thought this might be an opportune moment to return you this.”

He holds out his hand and at first I can’t take in what he has for me but then I realise it is the old football scarf that he confiscated from me back in the first form.  I remember I was particularly upset to lose it as my mother had embroidered all the names of the famous Championship winning team into its blue and white squares. I haven’t seen it in six years and imagined it lost forever.  Still, I had known at the time that it was against the rules to bring it into school. 

I get up to take it back from him and stand there in front of him looking at it, foolishly, not knowing what to say.

“Thank you,” I say finally.

He nods.  “Remember, much has been given you, my son, Stevie, but much is expected.”

I wait for a second but he says no more.  So I nod respectfully, turn for the door and go out into the Common Room, closing the door behind me with a click.  The lights are out.  Christensen and O’Hagan have gone.  The place really is deserted now and it feels it. More than that, it feels like the whole school is completely desolate and I’m the last soul standing, alone in the noiseless dark, inert, like the statue next to me. 

Except it isn’t. 

Not only have Christensen and O’Hagan disappeared, I notice at last, so has St. Thomas More.

* * *

The bloody fools!  I stand gawping at the empty space above the pedestal where the statue should be and it’s as though my brain can’t process the fact that it’s no longer there—   it just looks so wrong, like it’s a mistake or some kind of trick that will magically right itself any second now.  Only, of course, it doesn’t.  I take a quick look around the common room in the dark just in case they had stashed it nearby, but nothing—no sign.  My next thought is that, seeing as the statue is about four feet tall and, I imagine, heavy and awkward to carry, they can’t have gone very far in the little time they’ve had.  If I can catch up with them while they’re still on school premises it might just be possible to get it back here before Lafayette notices that it’s gone.  I set off quickly down the corridor, half-expecting to come across them giggling like idiots when I turn the first corner, St. Thomas More propped up against the wall by the brim of his three-cornered hat.  But, no. 

I really don’t understand Christensen, anymore.  O’Hagan I can see pulling a stunt like this and imagining it a clever trick in some way but I’ve always regarded Christensen as being better than that, as too smart to get involved in moronic acts of rebellion that could see him expelled without so much as a qualification to his name.  Since his brother Jon died, well, he has changed.  I guess the way the school handled it didn’t help—all that sermonizing about it every morning in assembly while he was sick couldn’t have been anyone’s idea of a fun time.  Still, this

When I reach the exit there’s still no sign of them so I go outside onto the top step and peer off hopelessly into the gloom in both directions along Mount Pleasant.  Opposite, the illuminated crown of Liverpool Cathedral—Paddy’s Wigwam—lights up the black night sky but offers no inspiration as to what I should do next.  I think about giving up, going back inside and finding Lafayette.  Instead, I take a chance and head left, downhill, towards town.  If I’d decided to make off with a four-foot statue I’m sure I would have taken the route of least resistance, so not uphill, but down.  Still, even this feels like a long shot and, after a hundred yards or so without any sign, I lose heart and come to a halt.  The chase is pointless.  They could be anywhere.   The evening is very dark already, and cold, too.  I’m only wearing my thin barathea jacket, having rushed out without my overcoat.  I want to give up.

Then, I spot them.   

About two hundred yards ahead, over on the other side of the road by the entrance to the multi-storey, I see two figures, or three you might think at this distance if you didn’t know one of them were a statue, stopped by the kerb.  In an instant I set off after them but they’re moving again, surprisingly quickly, one ahead and one behind—O’Hagan, I think, is at the back—and they’re carrying the load between them like it’s a roll of carpet.  I cross the road at speed, dodging through the traffic, but by the time I’ve gained the multi-storey they’ve already rounded the corner into Renshaw Street.  When I do finally catch up with them, or more accurately get within close enough shouting distance, they’re standing outside the Vines pub and, by the look of things, making ready to go inside.  I call out and—startled—they both look over in my direction.  After a second, O’Hagan’s expression turns to one of extreme irritation, like that of the comically thwarted cartoon pig he so resembles.  Christensen, on the other hand, seems unmoved, indifferent.  He merely waits for me to come up to them.   

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” I say, breathlessly.  “Are you determined to get yourselves expelled in time for the holidays, or what?  Well, if you are—congratulations!  I dare say you’ve now succeeded.”

“Oh no, Lord, help us, it’s the Head Boy,” O’Hagan says in a faux-cringing voice.  “We’re surely done for, now!  Piss off, Matteson.  This is nothing to do with you.  Go on back up the hill to your mince pies with Father Christmas.” 

“I’m not going anywhere without that,” I say, referring to St. Thomas More, who is standing somewhat surreally in the middle of us.  I turn to Christensen.  “How can you do this to your parents, Tom, after all they’ve already been through?  Wasn’t that enough?”  

His eyes narrow, but after a second it’s O’Hagan who pushes me roughly on the shoulder.  “You’re one proper bastardy piece of work, Matteson,” he says. “No question about it.”

“Me?” I say.  “I’m trying to save him from himself.   And, for what it’s worth, you, as well.”

O’Hagan snorts derisively.  “Listen to yourself, O Mighty Boy Blunder.  You’re practically one of them already, you know that?”

I ignore him and look at Christensen.  “Tom,“ I say, “I know we haven’t really been friends since the Third Form—or longer, maybe—and a lot has happened to you since then, I know.  But, listen to me, this won’t end well.  I can’t believe you really want that.  Let’s take it back, you know, before it’s missed, if we still can.”

He fixes me with his typically cold, hard and—just possibly this time, cynically calculating—stare, then breaks off. 

Without so much as a word he turns his back on me, goes up the few steps to the door of the pub and holds it wide open.  I can only stand by and watch in frustration as his accomplice, almost as if they were dancing the final slow dance at the Sixth Form Disco, embraces St. Thomas More in a hug of romantic demeanour if not intent, and together they shuffle slowly inside—if anything, a Chaplinesque parody of dance.  I turn away.  Ironically, my eyes are greeted at once by the sight of another statue, the famous male nude figure by Epstein spot-lit in the dark high above the entrance to the department store across the street.  It is far too cold an evening for anyone to be standing around so brazenly naked, even a statue.  I remember I have my old scarf scrunched in my pocket, that Lafayette gave back to me earlier, and I take that out and put it on now.  Six o’clock, is all it is.

* * *

Seven o’clock.  I’m standing directly under the Epstein, where I can watch all three exits from the Vines and not be immediately spotted by anybody coming out.  At this point I have long given up on wanting to help Christensen and O’Hagan, the stupid bastards.  Let them get expelled if that’s what they want.  The only reason that I’m still waiting around in the dark is to try and make sure—if I at all can—that St. Thomas More makes it back to the College in one piece.  All the same I am so absolutely fucking cold right through to the bone just now that I have to wonder how much longer I can stand it out here.  Opposite, the hands of the large, ornately roman-numeralled clock mounted way up on the wall of the Vines pub move so slowly that I’m beginning to imagine they might actually be frozen, too.  Without even realising at first that I’m doing it, I find myself hopping from foot to foot like some kind of lame village idiot dancing in the street.  All I really need is a tambourine to beat in time and I would surely pass for the freak-show for Jesus that so many of my peers already believe me to be.

Still no sign.   

Just about all that I have witnessed, actually, in the last hour is an unending parade of party people passing in and out of the pub’s doors, usually loud gaggles of three or four young women sloshing around together, or even larger if - strangely - quieter gangs of lads, all out for a good time, the evening just settling down into the weekend’s wild festivities.  I don’t really envy them their idea of a good time, though.  Somehow I just know I’m better off on this side of the road.  I can’t even imagine what Christensen and O’Hagan might be doing in there with the statue, or why.  I don’t even have any idea what I’m going to do when they finally come out – with or without St. Thomas More.  I’m still pondering this when I realise there is some kind of minor commotion now going on in the centre doorway.  Sure enough, after a second or so, I can make out that it’s the two Chuckle Brothers scuffling awkwardly out into the street, looking almost as if they might be the pub’s bouncers wrestling with a customer unwilling to depart the pleasures of the bar.  St. Thomas More, one over the eight and making trouble about it.  Immediately I vault the fence in front of me and start to pick my way through the traffic towards them - but not before O’Hagan has already managed to flag down a passing black cab with an astonishingly loud shrill whistle that probably carried the entire length of Lime Street.  For a brief second I hang back while they haggle with the driver, perhaps over the unusual cargo, and then, with perfect timing, just as they start to load up and get in, I quickly approach the cab from the other end, twist the metal handle to open the door, and climb inside with a cold feeling in my heart akin to that of the avenging Archangel Michael in a righteously bad mood.

Just the look on their two stupid faces at this moment is reward enough for my hour-long frozen vigil in the dark under the statue of a naked man.  Pure, open-mouthed, stunned silence follows.  O’Hagan’s smart mouth for once is stopped, agog.  Even Christensen’s mask of indifference briefly slips, his demeanour for a few seconds matching his volcanic complexion.  The head of St. Thomas More lies across O’Hagan’s lap, with the base resting against the foot of the door to my right.  Some stray, multi-colour party streamers remain draped randomly around robed shoulders and over the black three-cornered hat.  Kidnapped and forced to party, the Saint’s fixed, tight-lipped expression suggests this was not an experience he much at all enjoyed, nor cared to repeat.  I am tempted to cap the moment by exclaiming in a deliciously ironic, Pythonesque way, “No one expects the Head Boy!” but refrain from fear they will miss the intended irony and the phrase will come to haunt me forever when it is repeated endlessly behind my back up and down the corridors of the school. 

Instead, I rap on the glass pane behind me and give the cabbie a new instruction.  “Cathedral College, driver,” I say, with a scarcely muted air of triumph. “Sixth Form entrance, if you will.” 

This galvanizes O’Hagan into action and he angrily countermands my order.  “No,” he practically shouts.  “Pier Head, driver!   Matteson, where the fuck did you come from?  What are you?  Some kind of super-powered retard?”  He looks at me, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, never more the insane porker than at this moment.  “Carry on, driver,” he says.  “Pier Head.” 

Before I can escalate the madness and belay his countermand with a further countermand of my own, Christensen pitches in, too. 

“You self-righteous prick,” he says. “Just this once, couldn’t you keep your nose out of my business?  Why do you always have to interfere?  What do you care what happens to the bloody thing?”

He glares at me with a withering contempt, exceptional even by his own high standards. 

Meanwhile, the taxi has set off.  “If you must know,” he goes on coldly, “we always did plan to take it back.  Later, though, when we’re finished with it.  Happy?” 

“That’s the best bit, actually,” O’Hagan adds, evidently pleased by what he perceives as his astounding cleverness.  He even lets out a little, self-congratulatory laugh.  “What we’re doing is taking photos of it all over town, you know, STM out on the tiles.  Then, after we’ve put it back tonight, we’ll send the photos anonymously to Lafayette in the post over Christmas.  It’ll kill him, not knowing who did it, or when!  Can you imagine it, his face?”  

Actually, I can’t.  The entire enterprise just leaves me puzzled.  It occurs to me I must be lacking the teenage prank gene, or something similar.  I mean, aren’t there just so many more useful things to be getting on with? My expression no doubt betrays the depth of my bewilderment because they both immediately begin to volunteer weak-minded justifications for their misbegotten scheme.  Seven years under the daily yoke of the Cathedral Brothers, etc. The constant humiliations and indignities [unspecified].  St. Thomas ‘Bastard’ More thrust down their throats continually.  His statue here constituting a symbol of all this and don’t I see how subjecting that now to [unspecified] indignities makes for by far the best and certainly the most ironic form of revenge?

I don’t see it at all.  In fact, I turn away and stare out of the window.  We’re heading down Paradise Street towards Canning Place and the Pier Head.  Some people are milling about, most likely just going from pub to pub the same as were the zillion party-seekers up by the Vines.  I admit I have trouble sometimes understanding what makes people do what they do, or why they would want to keep on doing the same dull things over and over again.  Though I had thought at one time that I understood Christensen, that he was more like me.

I decide to let their little prank play out, so long as the end result is the statue back at the school undamaged, and no real harm done.

* * *

Eight o’clock.  Feeling much like the fool that everybody else at school already knows me to be, I am now leaning heavily into the freezing headwind that gusts and blows without impediment all throughout the entirely open upper deck of the Woodchurch Ferry, bound for the uninviting, dark, empty shores of Seacombe on the west side of the Mersey.  Looking back in the other direction towards the receding Liverpool waterfront, I can still see quite clearly the illuminated twin clock-faces atop the Liver Building, although the two Liver Birds themselves now seem to have vanished completely in the evening murk, a bad omen.  Between here and there stretch the inky black waters of the Mersey, opaque to the point of invisibility, like the dark unwritten page of my future.  Caius, or the other thing?  Even the most intelligent people do need help seeing what’s important, that much is obvious.  I don’t know.  Am I the right person to do it?

Certainly the two clowns behind me need help from someone.  They have lined up the statue of St. Thomas More for a photo opportunity alongside a post-tethered lifebelt bearing the legend, “Woodchurch Ferry,” a shot they will soon enough find as hilarious as all of the others they’ve taken throughout this long, long evening.  We must surely be nearing the end of this escapade.  If I had thought I was cold under the Epstein, I am now approaching what feels close to absolute zero.  I wander over to the other side of the deck towards them.  O’Hagan has ripped the square of Polaroid film from the camera and tucked it under his arm to keep it warm while it develops.  He doesn’t look at me as I approach.

“Fuck off, Matteson,” he says, when I come near.  “Why don’t you go drown? There’s a river of opportunity right there for you.”

I ignore him.  Christensen is looking out over the rail towards Liverpool, and I join him.  “Tom,” I say to him, “if this did get out, think about what it would do to your mum and dad, you know?  Is it worth the risk?  For this?”   

He seems not to be listening to me, but continues to stare off into the dark distance.  For a moment or two, the only sound is the all-pervasive low growl of the ferry’s engines.  But then I hear him say, as if into the wind: 

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I no longer reside with dear old mum and dad.  They threw me out, or he did.”   He turns to look at me, sharp-eyed.  “The Morning Star didn’t mix too well with the Catholic Pictorial at the breakfast table, do you see?  No?  Too much atheistic Marxism for the Pater to stomach.  Either my views had to go or I did.  Get it?”

I don’t say anything.  He looks at me more closely.

“That scarf you’ve got on you, is that the one Lafayette confiscated back in the first form?  Really?  Can I see it?”

I’m surprised by this turn in the conversation, but pleased at the same time, seeing it as a thaw, an opportunity.  I unravel the scarf from my neck and hand it to him.  He scrutinises it while wearing what could pass as the first genuine smile that I’ve seen on his blighted face in years.  There was a time, oh way back, when we used to go to football matches together, back before everything else intervened.  He reads through the embroidered names of the players, one by one.

“He gave it back to you, Lafayette did?” Tom asks me. 

I nod.  O’Hagan comes over to see what’s up and Tom passes it to him to look at, as if it were a museum curio, which in a way, it is. 

“That scarf must be the only thing he’s returned to anyone, ever,” Tom says.  

“Stevie, you do realise that I’m the reason he took it off you in the first place?  That I tricked you into bringing it to school, knowing full well he’d confiscate it? No?”  He looks at me coldly.  “I told him you had it in your bag, laddie. That’s how he knew to look for it there.”

“Oh, come on,” I say. 

Behind him, I see O’Hagan has wrapped my scarf around St. Thomas More’s high-collared neck and is preparing to take a photo.  I move to take it back but Tom Christensen quite deliberately gets in my way.  Before I can make it past him, O’Hagan, with extraordinary speed and athleticism for one so bulky, rushes towards the statue and, just as if he were tossing the caber, lifts it from the base and heaves it first up onto and then over the rail like a low-trajectory sky-rocket into the night.  I cannot believe my eyes.  The three of us run to the side and look down into the black waters.  I think I might see it for a second but not really. 

It is gone, lost.  The three of us keep on staring into the barely visible, murky river, even though nothing is left down there to see. 

“Truly the shit-pool of all shit,” Christensen says quite happily. 

 

Originally from Liverpool, Malcolm Dixon studied fiction at the University of Minnesota.  His stories have featured in many literary journals both in the UK and overseas (Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and the USA) and have been both nominated for the Pushcart prize and placed in the Stand Short Story Competition.  He now lives on the Kent coast (in what he thinks of as a form of quasi-exile) with his wife and two daughters.