…the final straw






Stumbling out from the shadows of the rhododendron bushes, stumbling into the  dwindling light of the dusk, Henry was a different man. Though in many respects he was the same man. He was the same but different. Unfortunately, Henry couldn’t work out in what way he was the same and in what way he was different. He wasn’t even sure if he was different, if he was more different or more the same, or more or less different. He had no idea how he had changed, if in fact he had changed. Was “changed” the right word? Hadn’t he just lessened in some way? Just shifted one way or another? Kind of turned? Sort of sunk down and then risen up? Bobbing in the ocean? Sort of not changed at all? Sort of turned a full circle and arrived back where he came from? Just the exact same Henry Bridgewater? Nonetheless.


Is that slice of toast on your side plate a different slice of toast because it has been around the room?


Continuing to stumble, Henry made it to the rise of bricks and ivy which made up the school building, its solidity, its substance, its existence, coming as a complete surprise to him; his forward progress came up short because of it. And this substance, this school building, had texture and all of the other properties of an extended object. It was there in front of him, not letting him pass, couldn’t be climbed over, walked through. It was huge. Was there always a school here? There was yellow light seeping through parts of the building’s substance now. Windows were lit up with life going on inside. Things happening. Other people. Approaching one window, which Henry knew by some instinct deeply buried until now was one of the staffroom windows, Henry tripped over his own feet and caught only the briefest of glimpses of what was happening inside.


What was going on inside the staffroom?


Smiling. What was going on in the staffroom could be summed up in that one word, a word which Henry mumbled over and over again as he wallowed in the flower beds and the darkness. A word which wouldn’t be heard by anyone else. But a word nonetheless, because nonetheless Henry was saying it, not just mouthing it, mumbling it into his arm – he clearly enunciated each syllable (two): smiling. It was uttered as though it was something appalling. The most unbelievable thing. Shouldn’t be happening. How could anyone be smiling? Why?


Henry didn’t even know who it was who had been smiling, or if it had been more than one person smiling in the staffroom, or even if there had been more than one person in the staffroom. He was only sure that there was someone smiling in there, either sitting down or standing up, or kneeling at their prayers, or making a cup of tea, or playing Gin Rummy, or fast asleep on their feet. Someone was smiling. The whole room was smiling. Henry suspected that there was more than one person smiling. Even though he could get no picture in his head of what was going on in the staffroom, even though he only had an idea of smiling, he strongly suspected that there were a large number of people collected in the staffroom, all of them smiling. Perhaps they were all sharing a joke. And they all got it. Or at least they pretended to. You’ve got to laugh, smile at least, if there’s a joke. Even if you don’t know it, you have some reason to smile. What’s the joke?


Henry couldn’t form a clear picture of anyone he knew smiling. He couldn’t even form a picture of himself smiling. And this was immediately a cause of great distress. His mind somewhat numbed by the one and a half bottles of sweet sherry he had drunk over the last few hours, Henry had trouble forming any coherent ideas. The process of reasoning, which he had often partaken of, was now beyond him, and only flashed and sparked in his head in brief bursts. Bursts of light which served only to illuminate the darkness and chaos of his mind. Its emptiness. Worse, its fullness. Its burgeoning, bursting, falling out, falling apart, fullness. Full of nothing clear. And a spark of the light of reason goaded him every twenty-six seconds. Half illuminated notions. The probability that he had done something awful. Something shameful. He should be ashamed of himself. The memory of Julia Madden’s grey knickers. A quiet word with Mrs R P Merryweather. Sporadic bouts of masturbation. The road to Damascus. It was chaos.


And then it hit him. A sharp pain on the back of his head. It might have been a stone. Or a coin. Someone was throwing coins at him. Or something else. It could have been anything. Anything could have been thrown at him. And then again. Hit again. He was being rained on. Suffering an attack. Being attacked. Turning to face his aggressors, Henry was confronted by the darkening twilight of the school’s grounds. And then it hit him. And it hit him again. Scrabbling about on the ground he found something. An acorn. He was being hit by acorns. This isn’t right.


“This isn’t right!”


But there was no one there. Unless they were hiding in the bushes.


“I can see you!”


And he was hit again. Not knowing what to do, and his escape route being blocked off by the surprising substantiality of the school building, Henry walked towards the oncoming fire of acorns, into the darkness. Perhaps it was Oscar. Where was Oscar?


“Where’s Oscar?”


And then it hit him – squirrels. Why hadn’t he realised it before. They were everywhere. Not that he remembered seeing them before. But that’s just the way with squirrels. Like pigeons. They’re just there. There everywhere. And all of a sudden they’re throwing acorns at you. Another acorn hit him on the head. Squirrels with very good aim. Although there might have been a dozen acorns missing their mark for every one that hit him square on the head. But it was a fitting end to the day. It was the end, being attacked by squirrels, the denouement. The resolution. He could just see them in the trees when they jumped between branches, when they ran along the thin branches between trees or out into the open, before they threw their acorn at him, and scurried back for more. Everything unravelling. Denouement.


Not that Henry was being philosophical. He was far too disorientated to be philosophical. He could be philosophical tomorrow, when he considered just how unravelled he was. He couldn’t think now. He could just about be unravelled. And unravelling himself he stumbled forward. At least he was stumbling somewhere. The nuts and acorns continued to rain down on him sporadically, one hitting him in his left eye. It stung. With one good eye he stumbled on. He had to keep going. Wasn’t he escaping? Had to be fully unravelled. And he managed to stumble towards the monkey puzzle tree. Let himself go. The monkey puzzle tree. His anchor. Its firm rise. Its thereness. Its everythingness. Embrace it. He leant against it, his arms holding himself against it, his face pressed up against its rough bark. It was so big. Solid. Hard. He could no longer feel the nuts and acorns the mob of squirrels were probably still throwing. He was fully unravelled.


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