litmus

…what you are made  of     

Oh, by the way, Henry had started smoking again; he considered it preferable to living with the possibility that his good friends would once again surreptitiously addict him to nicotine. It also gave him something to do. Having nothing to do was a particular worry of Henry’s at this time. Very often, Henry found that he had nothing to do. There were probably a lot of things he should have been doing, like marking pupils’ work and other such things, but doing it never occurred to him. On more than one occasion this week, Henry had found himself at a lose end; the worst thing about being at a lose end was looking like you were at a lose end. Henry was worried.

And even though it was Henry’s natural state to be worried, to be very worried, to be overcome with anxiety, for some reason he felt this worry in a way that he hadn’t felt worried before: the thought of being known to have nothing to do, worried Henry at a level he had never known. So when Julia Madden, the stocky gym teacher ratcheted up her level of interest in him, and when Tommy Kilpatrick, the very strange history teacher sidled up to him in the car park, and when a re-addiction to nicotine suggested itself to him, Henry was eager to get sucked in, eager to get ensnared, to be trapped, stuck, overcome, to get involved, play a part, have a part and be a part. Just a part.

Worrying about having nothing to do, which was worrying about having nothing to worry about, was just too much for Henry, as it would be for any person. However, rather than dismiss such a fragile and insubstantial and groundless and baseless and pointless and ridiculous second-order-worry, what could be termed a meta-worry, being worried about worrying, or rather – worrying about not worrying, Henry jumped in head first and grappled for something slightly more substantial to worry about in order to ease the high pitch of anxiety he had thought himself into. Henry would stand firm. He decided that he would worry about getting caught smoking. And just in case that worry would exhaust itself, he fully endorsed the need to worry about Julia Madden, who he smiled at, in a manner which he thought could be construed as suggestive. It would be. Must be. His smile suggested everything. And then he frowned in the direction of Tommy Kilpatrick, a frown that could only be construed as one of serious disapproval: the frown of someone who you should be wary of. An enemy.

Lost in the tangle of the rhododendron bushes, smoking a rather dry and bitter confiscated cigarette, getting more and more light-headed with every drag he took, loosing himself in his favourite addiction, crouching down because of his intense fear of discovery, Henry pondered the dangers he had cast himself into: an army of Tommy Kilpatricks was sure to orchestrate his demise and a swarm of Julia Maddens was sure to orchestrate his ravishing. What a wonderful world.

It was the barely audible crack of a branch which marked the beginning of all of Henry’s troubles, or rather their marked continuance, after a brief lull, which hadn’t felt like a lull at all. He had hardly a chance to draw breath. And if Henry wasn’t so caught up in the feeling of the smoke hitting the back of his throat and the feeling of light-headedness which was overcoming him, he might have heard more than one branch cracking, because he was in fact being approached from more than one direction. But even if he heard every branch around him all of a sudden crack in two, Henry would have thought it unlikely that even he would have to worry about a multiple discovery – being simultaneously discovered by two or more people. Such an outcome could only be the product of paranoia far in excess of his own. The worst that could possibly happen at this point, as Henry was just now thinking, would be the sudden appearance of Mrs R P Merryweather, headmistress, her generous rotundity suspended beneath the billowing mass of a parachute. For her to be accompanied by his tut-tutting parents, the leering Julia Madden, the sneering Tommy Kilpatrick, his third form class and a pack of rabid dogs, was the stuff of gross fantasy.

But an attack from the air would not occasion the cracking of a branch – so Henry could dismiss that possibility with little more than a slight shrug of his shoulders. Never before had the slight shrug of his shoulders sufficed to dismiss a worry. So Henry felt the tingle of what might have been empowerment pass through his frame, though it was most likely the spread of the effect of the nicotine: light-headedness spreading throughout his body, rendering his arms and legs light, his shoulders and chest light and his centre of gravity light, such that his rising from that spot and up through the tangle of the rhododendron bushes was the thought which filled his conscious mind completely – until Julia Madden appeared before him, bursting with reality and ruthless breathing.

“Mr Bridgewater!”

Henry, assuming a tone of reproach in her voice, for the sake of his own fragile understanding of the world and his place in it, adopted the smug look of someone very used to censure, someone who encouraged it and who thrived on it. He needed it. And he was so busy dealing with this censure, about to plead the strength of his addiction to the vile drug nicotine, that he didn’t have time to counter Ms Madden’s initial advances, and before he could manoeuvre himself out of danger, her ample bosom was crushing his hand and the cigarette it held to his chest.

The “Ms Madden” he just about managed to give voice to, was all but smothered by the raw flesh of her neck and her cheek, though what emerged of his utterance had all the characteristics of a breathless expression of overflowing joy. This was responded to in kind – an ardent “Mr Bridgewater” filled with the emotion of a love repressed for too long. Allowing him the space to breathe and to take in her flushed face, Julia Madden got lost in Henry’s watering eyes, her nose twitching at the smell of fresh tobacco smoke and the smell of burning synthetic fibres.

“So, it’s true?” Julia asked of Henry’s pale face. “Of course it’s true,” she answered for him.

Henry was more taken aback by the speed at which this all happened than the fact that it had happened at all. He had expected a move from Julia, he had expected a forceful thrust, but he was overcome by the manner in which she had succeeded in sweeping him off his feet. It would be some minutes before he would register the pain consequent of the cigarette tip burning through his nylon tie, shirt and thermal vest. It would be a similar length of time before he would have the wherewithal to blush. It would be quite some time before he would work out the implications of what was now happening. For now, his pale face and hanging open mouth would have to serve as the only comment he was capable of offering.

Stuck as Henry was for words, Julia supplied her own, many of which would have made any man blush, let alone Henry.

What would have taken whatever wind was left in the world out of his now limp sails, was the sight of Tommy Kilpatrick, his face nestled between two clumps of glossy rhododendron leaves. The look on Tommy Kilpatrick’s face was one of supreme evil. As Henry would later relate to Oscar: “It was as though all the evil in the world settled for a moment on his features.”

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