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(A Sad Tale)

Karl has an exam on Monday. He's dreading it and can't get it out of his head. It dominates every moment, and the nearer it gets the worse he feels. Then there's this visit his mum organised months ago without telling him. That's for tomorrow, Saturday, and they're staying overnight until Sunday. He just doesn't understand why she insists he goes too. She says she won't leave him at home on his own.

The fact is she doesn't trust him. She says she has no idea what he might do if left alone for a whole weekend. If it wasn't for his rebellious nature she might go easy on him... except, like the rest of the family, she has a Catholic background and is a bit of a puritan .... and she knows only too well, or thinks she does, what boys are inclined to get up to when left alone. On the few occasions Karl has bothered to question her about it she refuses to be specific and pretends not to know what he's talking about.


karlAs for the trip, Karl protests; he insists he really doesn't want to go. But it was planned a long time ago, she says, and they're all looking forward to him being there. She can't let them down. It's her in-laws, his dad's side, who've never been able to stop lamenting the time he scarpered with a blond tart half his age. They seem to think they have to continually make it up to Karl's mum, like they're offloading guilt… did they introduce his dad to the blond who lured him away, Karl wonders? The only time he asked about it, all he got back was the order to shut the hell up. But never mind that. It's over, all in the past... a whole decade ago. Karl was only 7, but so what... his dad was never there anyway.

OK, so now he has to get stuff ready for tomorrow. And all the time that dreaded exam weighs on his mind. If he fails then he won't be allowed into tech-college where his heart is set. Ever since he became aware of smart-matter, he’s wanted to learn about it: those mysterious innards that devices of the future will rely on and that will feature above everything else in people's lives... like what will be inside real robots and real drones and in all the unseen multiplexes which form the great networks that synchronise and hold everything together. OK....

Karl, it should be said, is 100% boy - just in case anything about him suggests he’s anything different....  private things, that is, things he’s never told anyone. As for the exam, he well knows he hasn't swatted-up enough. The trouble is as soon as he gets the pages all set, keypad at the ready... his brain goes blank and his eyes glaze over and all he wants to do is get outside and charge about... or else sleep.

Yet when he really forces himself to concentrate, he actually begins to understand the equations. He has all the answers laid out on-screen, it's just a matter of going through them, learning how to select the right equation for the problem at hand. If only every time he tried to dredge what he’s learned, his head didn't feel empty so all he’s left with is the thought of that dreaded exam and the consequences of failing.

And now that visit. It's 80-miles away. He has to pack pyjamas, a clean shirt, the one with blue stripes his mum wants him to wear. It's actually their hosts' daughter Julia's engagement party they're going to, she tells him now. Why does anyone arrange an engagement party months in advance like that anyway, Karl wonders? Why can't they just get married and be done with it? It’s no use asking his mum questions like that. No way would she see it his way. Crazy... everyone's crazy. And Karl is caught-up in the craziness.

* * * * *

Now it's Saturday and he still hasn't packed. How can he pack pyjamas anyhow, he thinks, when he had to wear them last night? He’s late too. No time for breakfast, his mum shouts at him angrily. OK, that's fine, he says, I'm not hungry. You're thin as a rake as it is, she snaps... adding, why can't you be strong and outgoing like Julia instead of a timid little weakling? Karl ignores her. She loves to criticise him; calls him idle, useless, pathetic, good-for-nothing... etc., etc. He’s well used to it; still he wishes she'd stop doing it.

OK, he’s packed, including his tablet pointlessly in the unlikely event he can bring himself to do some final revision. He knows he won't be able to focus. Though maybe he'll be so bored there that he'll find he can? But, precocious, insightful, or whatever other attributes he might have, what good is last-minute revising when your head's all mixed-up with hormones and weird sensations, mental and physical, or wildly distorted notions of what other people might think, what their actions might mean and so on and so forth?

So they're about to leave. Is that all you've got, she barks, a little back-pack no bigger than a shoebox? What am I supposed to take, the sink too, he asks? She scowls back at him: just get in the car!

* * * * *

During most of the journey they suck sweets in silence. Then Karl’s mum reminds him these in-laws are quite religious and they'll probably all be going to church Sunday morning. No wonder Dad was a bit unstable, thinks Karl, then says firmly: You can count me out. Luckily she's OK with that. She well knows that no way would he ever agree to attend church. Julia's boyfriend, Damian, she says changing the subject, is 19 and at art college studying for a BA. As if I care, he replies, yawning. He’s never seen Damian, not even a photo, though his mum says they've been together two years.

Eventually, they arrive... a miracle, so it seems. Five hours to travel 80-miles. That's the M25 for you. Stuck for two hours because of an 'accident', a weak link in the chain, as ever. What with all the cursing and complaining, Karl feels exhausted, drained. So it's 14.00 and they've missed lunch. Even so, their hosts present them with flat 'fizzy' drinks, stale snacks and other leftovers. Karl takes one look and says he’s still not hungry. He opts for a glass of squash.

The house is an old farm house with a huge kitchen and six bedrooms. Julia shows Karl his room, which is across the landing from hers. For the next couple of hours they all sit around in an enormous lounge, Karl hiding himself away in a soft chair in the corner with a book while the others bicker and quarrel about this and that, all kinds of banal rubbish that would bore the pants off a sloth, Karl silently affirms.

In the end Karl is so bored he gets up and walks between them all and goes outside. He’s sure none of them noticed him go. Here, it's out in the sticks, just fields and woods, so he walks down the lane. No cars, nothing... only leaves blowing about. The tree tops bend in the wind and make sighing noises that perfectly match his mood. Crows are cawing and playing in the gusts. No way could he get that stupid tablet out and revise for that stupid exam. He stares up at the crows. I wish I'd been born a crow, he thinks... they look like they're really enjoying life.

Two hours later when he gets back, still no-one notices him. Though why should they? Then Julia asks where he’s been. Nowhere, he says, just down the lane and back. It's obvious she's not really interested. He ends-up sitting where he was before, alone in the corner, as if nothing has changed, no-one has moved... except now there's a chaos of used teacups and biscuit crumbs spread across the coffee table.

Suddenly they hear people enter the kitchen and someone shouts Hello! It's Damian and his parents. The in-laws get up and go to meet them, while Karl sinks deeper into the chair in the corner, watching from a distance. Then Damian comes into the lounge.

DDamian (before letting his hair grow)

DamianA stab of paralysis hits Karl and he catches his breath. Damian's appearance is completely unexpected... his physique that of the perfect model, his trendy dark-green hoodie, long black hair falling chaotically over the crumpled hood, stylish black jeans, tight where it shows... and, most alluring to Karl, the deep shadow of his eyes, which upon noticing Karl, Damian directs at him and their eyes meet. At length, Damian looks away as if embarrassed, but Karl continues to stare. Damian, reflects Karl, looked just a fraction too long to not mean something. Seconds later, as Julia takes his hand and they turn to leave, Damian flashes his eyes again at Karl, as though, Karl feels, to confirm whatever that something was.

Now the parents enter including Karl's mum and they all start talking at once. Karl sinks back down in his chair, restoring his low profile in the corner almost out of sight, out of the way, forgotten, unnoticed. Good, he thinks, that suits me fine. He needs time to recover from his silent exchange with Damian that's affected him almost like a blow on the head. No-one has ever taken an interest in him before, not like that...or did he only imagine it? Either way, it's altered him. Just keep quiet and hidden, he tells himself. He never knows what to say anyway so it's just as well.

But now with Damian in mind Karl has almost forgotten about the exam. Instead, he ruminates indulgently on all kinds of unlikely lurid scenarios. Making sure to keep his erection well hidden in case anyone comes near, he falls into a waking dream that slowly develops in ways more explicit than he's experienced before.

After a while, Julia's mum begins setting out a buffet and the clinking cutlery jolts Karl from his reveries. He reflects briefly on the unwholesome nature of the events that went through his mind and on how fabulous yet impossible they were. Now a kind-of nervous weakness engulfs him, as if he senses that his fantasising was being hacked by one of the parents. If they knew what he’d been thinking, Karl muses, they'd drop dead from shock. But they can’t know, he reassures himself, realising too that his thoughts were actually quite weird.

Shortly, Julia and Damian return. Keeping his head down, as ever, apparently focussed on the book he’s holding, Karl now watches Damian furtively for some time. Damian doesn't seem to notice, nor to Karl's disappointment does he look across again.

Later, when the others have devoured most of the buffet, Julia calls across for Karl to come and get something. OK, he says. The truth is he couldn’t eat a thing. Although he’s eaten nothing all day, he’s not remotely hungry. For the past half-hour he's felt something strange happening in his gut that seems to be working its way down. His head's a bit fuzzy too, like he’s in a parallel universe and everything exists behind a transparent veil. Then suddenly he knows he has to get out of the chair. He has to but something stops him from moving. Several minutes pass. He’s unsure what to do. He waits as long as he dare, then finally forces himself to get up. It’s only a few metres across the lounge and through the hall to the toilet, but he only just makes it in time. Which is just as well... he failed to pack spare boxers or jeans.

Back in the chair, feeling a bit better but still nervy, Karl is secretly watching Damian again when he looks up and walks over. So you're cousin Karl, he says, stopping and gazing with a curious intensity into Karl's eyes. I've heard you're aiming to be a technician. That's right, Karl replies, and I've heard you're studying art. Damian nods. What kind of art, Karl asks? Well, we do painting, he says, oil and watercolour, then there's sculpture, tapestry, stencil… all kinds, including the history….

Then Julia calls Damian across to open the Champagne, while she'll cut the cake, she says. Why aren't you eating, his mum says as she takes Damian's place in front of him, you're not eneraxik are you? Anorexic, Karl corrects her, and no, I just don't feel good right now. There's always something wrong with you, she says, it's a brain problem. Leave me alone, he tells her, though maybe she's right he thinks. Why don't you join in, she says, I can't understand why you're so shy; I didn't bring you up to be shy. Just leave me alone, Karl says again, then thinks: You don't know anything you stupid woman.

Champagne is being served in shallow glasses, and little chunks of cake on prissy plates. Karl's mum goes to get her share, she beckons Karl reproachfully. Maybe he'd better do as she wants. So he gets up and joins in toasting the couple. The Champagne might help him feel better. They all ignore him, no surprise there, he thinks, returning to his corner and the book he's pretending to read while continuing to watch Damian. All he really wants is for the day to end so he can go to bed and sleep.

Eventually, Damian’s parents leave. Damian, though, is staying. He often sleeps over, apparently, and even has his own car.

Finally bedtime at last. When Julia goes up, Karl uses that as a cue and soon follows her. His room is small but has a three-quarter bed. It's so bright in there from moonlight that he doesn't need to put the light on. Besides, he’s dead tired; it's all he can do to get out of his clothes and dive between the sheets. He can’t even be bothered to sort-out his pyjamas from the little back-pack he brought.

Karl turns over and over but is unable to sleep for thinking about Damian. He makes a big effort to redirect his thoughts and tries in vain to think-away the erection he’s had from the moment he got into bed. He realises he needs to jack-off, but dread of dreads he must avoid staining the sheets. They'd be sure to notice, he surmises, and they're bound to tell mum; why didn't he bring tissues? He could ejaculate on the floor, but knowing them someone would be bound to find the wet patch or notice the slight musty smell. He gazes out around the room. The curtains are so thin, he can see there's no tissues anywhere. When they've all gone to bed, he tells himself, I'll go to the bathroom for bog paper. But when it all goes quiet he doesn’t have the energy or the will to get out of his warm bed.

Damian... he thinks, turning again... well, forget him, he's spoken for... it's just that how come he stared at me like that, and for so long? Was it a fluke, a mistake? Maybe he has trouble focussing... The corner where I sat was dark, after all. Gawd, what's wrong with me? No-one's interested in me. Mum’s right, I’m just a useless jerk… ugly, stupid, boring... well, OK, so what? But I really must get some bog paper....  except I can still hear someone in the bathroom. Soon it'll all be quiet. Just be patient....

Nearly an hour later, it's been all quiet for a while and Karl is still unable to sleep. Now the moonlight falls across the door. Just as he's bracing himself for getting out of bed, he hears someone on the landing again, and they're outside his door.... someone else going to the bathroom, he thinks.... but no, they're opening his door. Instantly, Karl sits up and stares at the door. As it opens, in steps Damian, starkers.

Karl is astounded. In the moonlight he can see that unlike him, Damian is limp. You've got the wrong room, Karl whispers, Julia's is opposite. This is where I was intending, Damian whispers back, silently closing the door and moving towards Karl. Can I get in? Almost in disbelief, Karl immediately raises the bedclothes and shifts over. He can't believe what's happening. Christ, he says, Christ...

Damian snuggles tight against Karl and for half-an-hour they snog and roll wildly around and do the things new lovers do when naked together in bed for the first time... then: Shhhh, says Damian suddenly, gently touching Karl's lips, someone's moving on the landing.

The moonlight has gone now and it's pitch dark. Then the door begins to open. They freeze. All at once light from the landing floods into the room. And there's Julia standing silhouetted and staring wide-eyed and horrified at Karl and Damian who stare back equally horrified. Then the scream... what a scream!

Within half a minute the parents are there, peering in. Julia has gone. What the hell....? shouts her dad. Then, louder: Get the... out of this house now! Out. Get your stuff and go!

Slowly Damian releases himself from Karl, as he does he whispers in Karl's ear: meet me outside I have a car. Then he gets out of the bed as if oblivious to his nakedness, and slinks out.

Speechless and almost bursting with rage, Julia's dad moves aside for him. He turns his gaze to Karl and says: Your mother can deal with you! Then he moves aside and she's there, standing in the light. You devil you, she growls, I knew there was something wrong with you, you devil! Don't worry, Karl shouts back almost in tears, I'm going, you won't have to put up with me any longer. But she seems not to register his words. I'll deal with you in the morning you evil little monster, she snaps.

When they've gone Karl gets up and shuts the door. His heart is pumping like he's just run a mile. He dresses and, listening so as to avoid the others, makes his way down and out of the house. He can hear talking but is unsure where it's coming from.

In the yard he sees Damian getting in his car. The others are there too now. Over here, Damian calls. Karl makes a dash, but someone grabs him... it's Julia. No you don't you little sod, she shrieks, you're not going with him. The car starts and Damian looks round, hesitating. Go, Julia's dad shouts, banging hard on the back of the car, just go. Damian drives forward slowly, then when he can see it's no use, accelerates out and down the lane. Karl is still struggling like mad, twisting and writhing, then Julia lets go, and he charges out and down the lane where Damian's car went.

He runs for several minutes, then well out of breath starts walking. Trees throw spooky shadows on the road in the moonlight, but he hardly notices. Tears run down his face. He murmurs: Damian, where are you, why didn't you wait for me?

Then Karl hears sounds behind him and looks around. Someone is running towards him with a torch. There's a distant shout: Stop... come back you little swine. It's Julia's dad. He's coming after him. Then Julia's voice: Karl, she shouts, you're in real trouble now, you stop I tell you. Karl begins running again. Glancing back he can see they're closing in and can see him. A little way ahead he notices a track leading into the woods. It's his only chance. He veers off down the track as fast as he can. He's out of breath but keeps running, as well as gasping and sobbing in turn. The track winds, but he can still hear them and see torchlight flickering through the trees. Obviously they followed him onto the track, but they can't see him now.

He turns off the track and into dense undergrowth. Pushing past branches and bushes, stumbling over fallen logs and tripping on ivy vines, he keeps going like this for several hundred metres.

Now he's at a barbed-wire fence. It's barely visible in the dappled moonlight yet Karl can see it's in disrepair. A large twisted sign hangs at an angle: WARNING, it says. Apart from the low light, Karl's tears prevent him reading the writing underneath. He scrambles over and keeps going. His pursuers are no longer audible, nor their torchlight visible. Even so, his mind confused and with no idea where he's going, exhausted and still sobbing intermittently, he staggers on...

Suddenly the undergrowth collapses under him and he falls, and keeps falling and falling and...

* * * * *

Three weeks later Jeff Harper is walking his disobedient young dog down the track Karl took. As a kind-of test, he lets the dog off its lead. Then a rabbit darts across the track and the dog, like as ever, goes racing after it into the foliage. No amount of calling can get the dog to return. An hour later, Jeff is well into the undergrowth looking, When he reaches the damaged fence he can just detect the dog's distant barking. The sign says WARNING keep out, disused mine shafts. Taking a large stick Jeff goes forward prodding the ground ahead until he's peering into a dark hole where the dog's bark is coming from.

Later that afternoon a team of firemen erect a hoist over the hole. With helmet, torch and walky-talky, one of the men is lowered into the darkness. Shining the torch, the man watches the dog wag its tail like mad as he approaches. Then the torchlight falls on something else, and the man gasps. He says on the walky-talky: listen guys, there's a dead kid down here... then adds, lucky for him looks like he died on impact. For several minutes until they're ready to hoist him up, the man ignores the dog. He can only focus plaintively on the small, frail, broken body half covered with leaves and other debris...

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