…the pain at the back of the head consequent of inaction, inthinking, indoing, inanything
Henry slogged on with the book. Chapters one through to four may have been hard going, but things would soon pick up. Things happened in books; one thing led to another, so something had to happen first, in order for the second thing to happen and so on. Of course, setting and character had to be established, you have to establish setting and character, a dull grey sky, a bath of heat, the seventeenth-century, a predilection for young boys, a skip in her step. But that shouldn’t take too long. And a character is best seen in the midst of the action, as he’s being chased down by a savage gang of murderers, bayoneting a German soldier in the groin, or slashing the wheels of every car on his street. Because. Because how can you tell what a character is like before anything happens? And what’s the need for all these pages and pages of six feet high, and dark brown hair, and I wonder why, and where’s my mother, and what will I do, and what does she think about me, and all of that kind of carry on? It was almost enough to prompt him to put the book down or throw it across the staffroom. But Henry kept hold of the novel, kept it in front of his face, his eyes going over line after line, but little of it was going in.
The whiteness of Henry’s knuckles as he clung onto that novel in the staffroom could quite easily, that detail in itself, prompt page after page of character study, as well as whole chapters of background story – why are you like this Henry? But this whiteness of his knuckles, his seeming obsession with this novel, wouldn’t necessarily lead, by even the most circuitous and verbose of routes, to the conclusion that the dominant worry in Henry’s life of late was the worry concerning the emptiness of his life, one worry from the stable of worries entitled the essential meaninglessness of life, such a deep worry, a worry which attacked Henry deep down, very deep down, ate away at his insides, his large intestine, counted out and ate white blood cells by the dozen, scraped against his vital organs, wore away his bones at their sockets, a worry which was hollowing him out, but so deep was it, at least two inches below his pallid skin at any point of his body, that it was unlikely to be uncovered by even the most penetrating of character studies, not even over several chapters of dense prose, through preposterously long sentences or startlingly original and thought-provoking figurative language.
Worries, in general, have external manifestations; there are clear signs. A general worry was a worry which would be written in his face, perhaps a tear slowly rolling down his cheek, perhaps a furrowed brow, hunched up shoulders, even a clinging to a novel for dear life. But how to arrive at the true nature of that worry? The specifics?
So it was a worry which was deeply suppressed. Specifically. In general there were signs. But the specifics were tied up with internal organs, blood cells and bones, two inches below his pallid skin. And Henry could handle a worry wearing away at him on the inside, just as long as it didn’t break through the skin or pour out of his ear during a meeting with Mrs R P Merryweather. The thought of whom made him look up right then, scan the staffroom with an erratic stare, before riveting his eyes back to the lines on the page.
And what better way to suppress a worry, than lose yourself in the story of someone else’s obsessive worries – how can I prove myself, moaned the hero on every bloody page. Until it comes down to it, and he jumps ship like everybody else, splashing around in the water with the rest of them. Henry stopped reading for a moment, having actually taken in the last few sentences, and considered the likelihood of the rest of this novel focusing on this character dealing with regret, regretting not proving himself when it came down to it. I hope not, Henry whispered to himself, a whisper which carried across to Mr Browne reading the newspaper by the window, causing him to look up and stare at the picture of Henry gripping a book as though it was one of his own essential organs recently removed from his body, until he, Henry, was joined on the sofa by Julia Madden, whose bulk caused him, Henry, to collapse from his upright sitting position, perched on the end of a cushion, and fall back unto her generous bosoms, thus rendering his face for a moment invisible to the eyes of Mr Browne.
Having pulled himself out of that embrace, Henry looked from Julia’s smiling face, pale lips, her canine teeth gently pulling at the sides of her bottom lip, to the novel which had closed on his lap, and then back at Julia, just as he remembered to lose himself in her eyes, because he was in love with her, at least he was having sex with her, which amounted to more or less the same thing, unless you wanted to debate semantics, and he smiled, nervously at first, unwilling or unable, to fully immerse himself in the character he was now projecting – Henry Bridgewater.
Julia seemed to be going through a tick list of things she had to tell Henry this very instant. The urgency of her need wasn’t clear from the things she listed off – a girl having a sprained ankle, the water fountain not working outside of the old History room, the Sixth-form girls holding a sit down demonstration on the front lawn, the canteen running out of salad sandwiches again half way through lunch, the deep redness of the Chaplin’s face, the anger filling Mrs Merryweather’s face as she stood at the main entrance to the hall watching the demonstration on the front lawn.
Thank god he was in love; otherwise, Henry really couldn’t have coped. He let the novel fall open slightly and peeked onto the edges of the pages, as Julia went on to put forward her view on something or other at length, whilst pointing at various things in odd corners of the staffroom. The five or six words Henry caught at the corner of each page provided great comfort, despite their being disjointed and randomly cut out of sentences. Henry felt compelled to form their shape with his tongue and mouth, and consider what they might mean, these words, ripped from the rest of the words in the story. And these words came together in Henry’s mind to form some kind of meaning. They made sense. Everything made sense.
The entrance of Mrs Merryweather at this point was as dramatic as it was sudden, expected and timely. And then she was stood there, feet planted firmly on the faded carpet, arms at her side, chest jutting precariously out and head thrown back. Her arm was slow to rise, but it rose, as though it was an action being described by words in the novel, and as it rose her fingers curled out into a point, and as the pointing finger slowed to a stop, Henry felt a faint tickle of gratitude.
“Me?” Henry said.