…to be held against your will, better judgement or any preference voiced beforehand
To chart the complete collapse of a character, of a human being, of Henry, may seem a callous business – but such is the lot of the author of literary fiction. Because that’s the difference between literary fiction and all other kinds of fiction, from bodice-ripping fiction, to science fiction, through erotic fiction, and every other kind of fiction. Literary fiction is callous; it involves a complete lack of regard for the feelings of your fellow human beings – which is not to say that these feelings should be ignored. You cannot ignore – the feelings of Henry as he crumbles towards oblivion must not be ignored. They must be calmly and coldly observed and laid out on the page.
Parking his car in the school parking lot could be an apt staring point for the cold and callous narration of the latest stage in Henry’s demise – a long and drawn out process, but all the better to write about. Of course, several pages, even chapters, could be written on the turbulent thought processes which boiled over several times as Henry drove to school. Twenty minutes of quiet time for Henry (his car radio having been broken by Smith, who had insisted on their being another channel to the left of the radio’s furthest extreme) are grist to the mill for the literary fiction writer.
These weren’t, of course, twenty minutes of reflection. The fact that there was no noise, not even emanating from Henry himself, is not evidence of calm reflection. The reader has been fully briefed already on the chaos inside Henry’s head – if twenty sustained minutes of this insanity can be imagined and noted by the reader, twenty horrible minutes only interrupted by one red light, the writer will be saved several paragraphs of tortuous prose.
And so Henry arrived at school.
Several pages later Henry was still hanging on to his six hundred compartments and the complex system of brakes, levers and gears which were designed to ensure their smooth and efficient running – he was at that moment, sitting in front of and glaring at thirty eleven-year-old girls who were writing assiduously about their favourite pet, and if they didn’t have favourite pet any pet would do, and if they didn’t have a pet they were to imagine a pet, and if they couldn’t imagine a pet they were to draw a pet, and if they had forgotten their pencils they could draw with their pens, and if another girl asked another damn stupid question they would be spending the rest of the term sitting outside Mrs Merryweather’s office, and he wasn’t joking, Mr Bridgewater wasn’t joking.
Which mental compartment dealt with pets? Henry was now at leisure to think on. Henry had pets… in the past. He had a cat, a goldfish, a squirrel and a dog. His dog was called Jasper. And what had happened to Jasper? Should he use one of his spare compartments for thoughts on his pet Jasper who had, now that he thought about it, disappeared without trace when he was around twelve – why had he not searched for him? Couldn’t this whole incident be assigned to the compartment… Henry looked through his black leather diary where the summer moths of July and August were given over to listing the five-hundred and ninety-three compartments of his mind as well as seven emergency compartments to deal with the vicissitudes of life which were very rarely spare. Locating a compartment entitled “Childhood guilt/shame” Henry felt a moment of relief – into this compartment was consigned the strange case of Jasper’s disappearance.
Henry had next to engage his final emergency compartment once the knocking on his classroom door seeped into the muddy waters of his consciousness.
Mrs Merryweather’s secretary didn’t smile, which wasn’t disconcerting in this instance, if it wasn’t disconcerting in general, because she never smiled. But a smile would have gone some way towards comforting Henry on discovering that he was to report to her office immediately. It wouldn’t have gone far, an unprecedented smile, it may not have even penetrated his numbed senses – but it would have been a kindly gesture from one human being to another at a moment which was highly likely to be a moment fraught with panic, alarm, terror, and all their synonyms.
This was the moment (the moment when Henry was reaching out to knock on the darkly stained oak door of the Headmistress’s office) which Henry had always dreaded, but knew, deep down, as well as on the surface, and on every level in between, was always going to happen. This was the moment that Oscar and Smith had orchestrated through getting Henry surreptitiously addicted to sugarcoated nicotine chewing gum. This was the moment, Henry could have reassured himself, should he have had the presence of mind, where his life took on the flavour of a thriller – something was certainly happening; what was to follow would not be a “quiet bit”.
“Come in. come in.” was how Mrs R P Merryweather announced the beginning of the end.
Upon thawing out afterwards, standing shaking in the bushes, smelling the tar and nicotine on the glossy leaves, his mouth full of three, then four, then five, pieces of gum, Henry was beginning to put together the sequence of events following his consigning the disappearance of Jasper to his “childhood guilt/shame” compartment. The fact that chewing-gum wasn’t mentioned, was the first thought which bobbed above the surface, maybe because it was a thought of something which didn’t happen and so weighed less than the other thoughts swilling around beneath the surface. But Henry didn’t trust his powers of recollection and needed other thoughts to rise to the surface to back up this thought – surely chewing gum was at least hinted at? How could the whole chewing gum issue be skated over? Everyone in assembly had seen him chewing like a hungry cow. Was he in fact the person doing the skating over, or rather his mind, in a vain attempt to protect him from reality, had his mind taken over and decided to repress details which were too unpleasant. Surely there was a raised word, at least a few words, on the subject of chewing gum, the chewing of gum, the blowing of bubbles, the…
But then other thoughts began falling into place, thoughts which surely corresponded to the way events actually unfolded, because they all fitted together so well, it all fitted together so well, everything fitted, it was like each of his five-hundred and ninety-three semi-permanent mental compartments and the seven temporary/emergency mental compartments merged together into one, a whole greater than the sum of six hundred mental compartments, one mental compartment, Henry Bridgewater, a full human being, a well rounded individual and fourteen minutes ago promoted to Senior Teacher in charge of extra-curricular activities excluding musical and sports events.