King Of Spain by Robert Ford 1
Chapter 1 The Estate A wheeze and creep and timid clatter filled the otherwise silent bedroom as the various electronic devices ran their separate, habitual tasks. Sam lay on his back in the gloom and blinked his large blue eyes, happy to let the darkness wash over him in gradual shifting waves of purest black and dull, streaked silver. ‘Hello? Hello? Sam?’ ‘Grimes?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Sam.’ ‘Hello?’ Loud sobbing from the other end of the phone. The sound of an aeroplane’s engine passing low overhead. Music somewhere, distant. And in the background, a wavering, nondescript announcement - security procedures, boarding gates. ‘Please, you must come . . . Stop it, Lizzie. Lizzie, for goodness’ sake . . . Sam? Hi. Sorry. Look. One needs help. Can’t you see that? You must come.’ Would all remaining passengers for flight 4302 please make their way . . . ‘Mr Grimes? A loud sequence of bangs - fuzz on the line. ‘Hello?’ ‘The game’s up, Sam. This thing has become tidal. All hands to the bloody pumps...’ The call had come a week ago; a strange and incomplete exchange. It seemed Grimes had offered him a job, had been inclined to invite him to the facility, that much at least was clear. But for the most part the conversation had consisted of a mixture of squawked abstractions and elliptical half starts that ended almost as abruptly as they had started, with a squeak and whistle and slam of the receiver. Each day since had been defined by a certain anxious, ripe banality. And now it was time to go, to leave, to set out into the world, although in that moment any such action seemed quite beyond the limits of his resolve: the night had been torrid, filled with tangled and unsympathetic sleep, and so it 2
was that Sam had woken to find himself in the grip of an intense melancholy, a heavy, lingering sadness that only really comes from dreams, that lies in the limbs and in the chest. He felt sick. And tired. And for a time at least, the day could wait. The house was cold and damp, conditions that prompted Sam to draw his dressing gown close as he lurched finally from his room and crossed the small central hallway. Despite his twenty-two and a half years there was still something rather childlike about Sam’s appearance, something fragile. His limbs were too long and too thin when compared with his body, awkward protuberances attached to a regulation frame that lent his movements a peculiar, jurassic flex. An incongruous, thickish neck supported a large, round head, topped with tremendous curls of hair, great clumps that seemed to change colour and tone depending on the light, from dark chestnut to a warm rusting brown. His jaw was slim, and lightly stubbled, above which sat a compact nose and two enormous, gentle eyes. He looked irregular, a conglomerate. Not handsome, though not plain. Stepping over the tired linoleum Sam moved along the corridor from the hall and through the slim plastic door at its end. Shards of grey and white light pulsed rhythmically through the darkness on the other side; the bedroom was large and sparse and still, with thick black blinds covering the two windows at either end, to the middle sat a single hospital bed with white railings and plump rubber wheels at each of the four corners, while to the right a large bank of equipment meekly bleeped and hummed with an antiquated analogue chunter. Sam crept over in silhouette, tiptoeing as carefully as his ungainly stems would allow, across the room to the near side of the bed. Below him his mother lay on her back, hands by her sides, grey hair splayed out behind her over the pillow. Her eyes were open, staring straight up towards the small canvas screen suspended several feet above, on to which the grainy footage of an old black and white movie was being projected. The film itself ran at half speed, looped into a sequence of three and a half minutes, Chaplin’s ‘Land Lady’, or at least the section starting with the magic lantern show, through the acrobatics of the fight, the laughing child and the livid landlady and finally back to the boy, the magic lantern and so on over and over and over. At this speed, and with this repetition, the footage attained a spectral quality, as if these players, these spirits, were trapped, the comedy of the chase now tragedy. Sam had come to hate this reel but at least it served a purpose; the doctors had explained at length - his mother was in stasis, alive and awake but in a 3
semi permanent state of shut down, the filmâ€™s flicker somehow helping her brain to tick over without damage. It was a solution of sorts, a botch, the stasis slowing her deterioration until such time as the scientists could formulate the treatments for whatever it was that was killing her, or rather, until Sam could afford the diagnosis and subsequent medical regimen required, never mind that these sums were beyond his reach now, and most likely for ever. Such was the way of things. Sam unclasped the rail and clambered up onto the bed so that he could sit along side his mother. Inspecting her cold blue eyes, he hoped for a sign, a twinge of recognition however small, but all he saw was an absence of life, a relocation of the spirit. How had it come to this? And how could someone so close, so familiar in every way, seem now so changed? Such quotidian exposure had hardened Sam somewhat to the situation, yet still he was obliged to feel the routine pangs of his heart quietly breaking, this every day calamity. And so as he always did, Sam leant over and took her small hand in his, planting a kiss upon her forehead, and together they sat in the darkness, mother and son, watching Chaplin go round and round and round and round and round . . . It was a dull morning, the roads quiet save for the faint rustle of the browned, downed autumn leaves, caught in a casual zephyr. A dog barked, distant traffic lowed, somewhere a train clattered, oblivious, on its way to the city. The front door of the bungalow creaked open and Sam stepped blinking on to the porch. He had washed and dressed, sporting a vanilla shirt under a slim grey suit, a creased flannel number that was patched at the elbow and too short by far in the leg. Turning around he gathered his large red ruck sack and took a few steps backwards off the porch and on to the potholed tarmac of the driveway, so that he could better see the house: like the others in the street, the whitish bungalow was small and squat and wore not at all well the signs of its increasing age - the paint peeled, the gutters leaked and the woodwork sat splintered and frayed. They had come here nearly twenty years ago, Sam and his mother retreating from the inner city under the furious black cloud summoned up by the disappearance of his father. He could not remember the journey, or indeed their arrival. The first notion he had of the house, his first memory at all in fact, was a smudged recollection of the night-time corridors, everything large, everything close, an outline of a woman, reaching out towards him, lifting him up and forward into a warm embrace. A blur of infancy followed, Sam tottering through boyhood as a
nocturnal creature might cope with the day, with a sense that things had been reversed, the world out of place and indistinct. He was not an unhappy child, quite content in his own way (unaware of any other form of existence, his solitude was without comparison) although the rough, debilitating edge of anxiety was never far from his person, even at such a young age. And so, despite the constant preening presence of his mother, who herself had difficulty negotiating the everyday other than through the mediative influence of alcohol, Sam slunk back towards the insular, one floor world of the bungalow; not agoraphobic but content to be housebound more often than not. Primary school came and went, an unspectacular process that was followed by enrollment in the international system, the online tutorial scheme that had become an educational standard. At first the opportunity to mix (virtually) with pupils from around the world was of some interest, but such a novelty soon wore off, ground down by the plodding grate of the web based presentations - bald men in headsets laboring through the curriculum, disappointed eyes trained towards hidden web cams. Drifting away from his studies, Sam turned instead to extraneous concerns: dreams, tangents. For a time he became obsessed with the Napoleonic wars, Waterloo and the role of the Prussians there, the classic film on a loop in the lounge, firing his eager imagination. On her better days his mother would take the role of the French Imperial Guard, goose stepping around the kitchen, wailing, while Sam rushed out from behind pot plants and out of cupboards, the corridors and rooms his battle field as he charged furiously about, arm held aloft, saving the day. By his early teens Sam had moved on, his mind taken up with ornithology and the natural world. For nights on end he would loiter by the back door of the house, a huge pair of makeshift, infra-red goggles dwarfing his fourteen-year-old face, convinced that a clutch of swans had taken up residence in alleyway to the rear. His vigil lasted months, and in that time all he saw was the bewildered face of a local fox, come to trawl the dustbins. Geology was next; the study of the collusion of elements, of pressure and time, seemed at the outset a perfect discipline for his precarious, but enquiring mind. With great enthusiasm he tore into the garden turf, dismantling the several feet of scrub that stood in place of a lawn. However, he unearthed only a mixture of flint, some plastic sheeting and the odd meagre nugget of sandstone - nothing nearly so interesting as the luminous rocks or the alien igneous constructions he had seen online. Besides which he lacked the rigor, the stringency of mind to really pursue it any further than the casual enquiries of a fleeting fancy, a way to while away the days. As Sam grew older, so this enthusiasm was replaced as a sudden
hormonal rebellion helped usher in a solemn, masturbatory period; the simplicity of his life fast becoming an internment of sorts, the confines of the bungalow not a sanctuary any more but a prison. At last he began to yearn for something more than the strictures of his sometime life, even though the thought of these horizons were, to him, terrifying. It was soon after his eighteenth birthday that his mother’s illness began to take hold, her decline swift and unrelenting as she spluttered towards infirmity. It was awful, and Sam hated himself for it, but he could not help but wonder if her condition was psychosomatic, that her symptoms were designed, an affliction in order to keep him there, in that house, with her. In fact his stubborn refusal to leave her owed something to the distaste that these thoughts had provoked, the shame of it. Sam was plain and awkward but honest and loyal and true to his mother who he loved despite her faults. And so he continued to dwell in the house, as he always had, tending to his mother, and then, once she was put into stasis, waiting, everyday, waiting; for what he was not quite sure. He knew a handful of people around the estate, although they were acquaintances at most, infrequent faces from the past. There was a girl, a fleeting association shaped by mutual boredom that amounted to little more than it would have taken to be thrown out of a public swimming pool - heavy petting at a push. Other than that his life played out a ponderous, limp approximation, a cycle of restraint and endurance that for years it had seemed impossible to redress. Standing there now in front of the house, a great wave of nostalgia rose in Sam’s chest and his heart swelled. His mother would be fine, the nurse would stop to check, and such was her condition that she would not notice his absence, not at all. He had to go, he knew that much. But in that moment the prospect of leaving became a treason or sorts, as if by doing so he was in fact betraying the fabric of his past, betraying her. Sam looked up at the house and made a silent pact, resolved to visit often, to make the pilgrimage, an empty promise but a necessary fabrication if ever he was to go. The car was canary yellow with plastic bodywork and small sleek wheels, a boxy, odd little construction mass-produced to answer the global thirst for the new fusion powered vehicles, a car that was, as much as anything, a product of its time – compact, cheap, functional, anodyne. Sam lumped the bag into the boot and clambered in through the driver’s side. He started the engine and listened to the tiny system catch and turn and squeak in to life with the kind of noise a robotic pig might make, an alarming metallic squeal. Then from the glove compartment, he took out a tattered 6
brochure and laid it out on the passenger seat. On the front was a picture of two young men and a young woman sat outside a large, well-maintained country house; the three of them were arranged precisely, sipping champagne, laughing, while behind them manicured grounds swept away towards the horizon. Above this image a banner read: Come to Edge Hill – For the time of your life! Flipping over the pamphlet, Sam squinted at the small map before plumbing the postcode into the shabby GPS that sat taped to the grey plastic dash. Instantly the device responded, displaying the route as a thick purple worm laid out across a detailed, three dimensional relief of the south of England. He looked at it, looked at the route - time to go. The roads still lay empty, the pavements untroubled - the inhabitants of the Estate either working remotely or not at all. Sam drove away down Elm Park, the long straight avenue that bisected the Enclave, endless columns of grey white woodwork flashing past the window. It was true that it felt awful to be leaving his mother, leaving home, but his Enclave and the Estate in general he would not miss in the least. Indeed as he moved on through the streets, the act seemed to distil those elements that had become loathsome to him - the abject uniformity, the empty streets, the isolation - so many people living so close, but without physical contact of any kind outside of the boundaries of their own homes, a multitude without community, starved of interaction, of direction or even, Sam thought, hope. Here the days and weeks, months and years rolled out unspectacularly, lives led through the interface of technology, through convenience and egocentricity. That was how the Estate functioned, a projection of sanitised, prescriptive living, underpinned by a sense of rank uncertainty, of frustration and muted rage as if one sudden spark could send the whole thing hurtling towards the abyss. And he couldn’t wait to get out.
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Published on Jun 9, 2012
One of the entrants to Apostrophe Books' Fiction Fast-Track writing competition, where one new author a month wins a publishing deal. To joi...