Black Chalk, first chapters

The book cover

I(i) He phones early. England greets the world five hours ahead of us and I answer before my day has gained its groove.

Before long I have agreed to everything he says.

Don’t worry, he says. I promise you, it’ll be fun.

It’ll be fun. Pause. Click.

Yes, that’s what we said about the Game all those years ago. It’ll be so much fun!

I hold the phone to my chest for some time after the call has ended. And then, crossing the room, I open my curtains for the first time in three years. Because now he has found me, tracked me down, and there remains no good reason to stay hidden any longer. For three cloistral years the quantity of time I have spent inside this apartment has averaged twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes each day. I am a hermit, as pale as my bones, as hairy as sackcloth. But now I intend to grow stronger. I must ready myself for the impending visit of the ancient friend.

Because the timing of the call was of course no coincidence. In five weeks’ time, fourteen years to the day since last we saw each other, this hermit turns thirty-four. And let me state from the outset that, whether I win or lose, I hope this story will serve as my warning to the world. A cautionary tale. My confession.

I stand by my window staring out at the city. Everything is storm-light, the bruised palette of the sky. Manhattan, mid-April. Down below on Seventh wheels rush and slosh water to the sides of the road.

I push my forehead to the glass. If I am going to win, then before he arrives I must undergo a transformation. I will embark upon the journey of the recovering warrior, just like in the boxing movies. Months of hard work before the comeback fight, the washout trying manfully to resurrect his career. And from the hermit’s chrysalis there will emerge a proud fighter. Except the strength I will need for the coming battle is all mental. I begin to wonder what might be the psychological training equivalent to sprinting up museum steps, pounding sides of beef with bare fists, quaffing raw eggs. I begin to hum inspirational music, I wave my fists feebly in the air.

Perhaps I could start out with a gentle stroll.

Yes, I’m going to do it, the hermit is going to go outside. And he may be some time.

I(ii) But I am sorry to report that I did not make it outside. The glasses stopped me, all six of them. Please believe me, I had absolutely no choice in the matter.

It surprises me every morning how much there is to remember, the fuss we must wade through before life becomes life. The eating and the drinking and the cleansing. The cleansing especially. Every day I question whether such cleansing has a purpose – for a hermit especially. But I have learned to trust my routines. When I lose trust in routines, bad things can happen.

I pick up a water glass and routine saves me again. Saves me from languishing in thoughts of the Game. Nudges me back to the present.


II(i) It had taken an act of immense bravery for Chad to befriend Jolyon.

Chad and the other Americans in the yearlong program had arrived in England a week before the British freshmen. At Pitt they called them freshers but at least the words were similar. Chad would have drilled into him far greater lexical oddities than this while studying at Oxford. (The cleaners they called scouts, the bills they called battels, the tests called collections…)

And during that first lonely week, as was his habit, Chad failed to make friends with his countrymen, a habit that made him feel awkward and defective. There were six of them and they had been garrisoned together in a narrow terrace house a few streets below the river, a fifteen minute walk from Pitt college.

Coming to Oxford was the numero uno bravest thing Chad had ever done. And he had come for adventure, so he didn’t see how spending time with his fellow Americans would benefit him. Because adventure wasn’t a vain search for some decent frickin food in the city. Adventure wasn’t a sweatshirt with your university name emblazoned proud and blue across the chest. And the truly adventurous surely had access to more than three adjectives when describing the architectural splendour that surrounded them. Cute, cool, awesome.

Around these Americans Chad knew he would never escape that part of himself from which he longed to break free. The shyness, the gulping and blushing and smiling at people when the more honest reply would be bullshit.

Although sometimes Chad wondered if his shyness was actually a secret defence mechanism, an evolved shield. Perhaps biting your tongue was the only thing that kept the worst parts of you hidden from the world. But what if shyness was simply a curse and in the world beyond his sealed lips a whole better life awaited him, the real Chad?

And so he resolved to act, to do something entirely un-Chad-like. He had pushed himself into adventure and now he needed to push himself just one more time. He would force himself to make friends with one British student at Pitt. Because any friendship was a path and paths always led elsewhere. To more paths and new places. Maybe even a better kind of life. And then, if he could only find a new world, Chad would skip down its lanes. Wherever they took him.

II(ii) Chad reasoned that freshmen would be the most open to new friendships. He should strike early on in the game before impenetrable circles and cabals began to form. This was a lesson learned from the errors Chad had made in his first year at Susan Leonard. A semi-lonely freshman, a barely social sophomore. He had hand-delivered the application to spend his junior year abroad on the day they began accepting submissions.

And so at the end of that first week in England, Chad spent two hours standing in the front quad of Pitt college. Two hours and every minute becoming more forlorn, his temporary resolve dwindling by the second.

Yes, throughout those two hours a steady trail of freshmen did indeed appear. But they arrived not alone, not companionless as they had been imagined. Instead they came accompanied by coteries of parents. Proud harbouring parents. Besuited parents. Parents swarming their beloved children and buzzing with manifest pride.

Over and over Chad watched the same routine unfolding. The freshman’s first entrance through Pitt’s front gate in the painfully assembled clothing that best summated his or her desired image. The aging father’s insistence upon carrying the heaviest loads. The mother’s hand fluttering proudly upon her décolletage, resting only to stroke the stone or locket of her finest necklace. Then later the return from the freshman’s room, their child’s new home having been located and inspected and the luggage all unloaded. And finally the farewell. The freshman awaiting the moment when the last thin twine of umbilical cord would at last and forever be cut.

The arriving families would pause here and there as they made their first turns around the perfect lawn. Shoulders were squeezed. Fingers pointed out the Gothic glories of the college buildings, the gargoyles and the diamonds of lead that latticed the windows, the uneven staircases spiralling up from the squat arched doorways. Dark stone passageways that promised more of Pitt’s pleasures beyond front quad. The gardens and their ancient tree with tired limbs held up on crutches. Back quad with its wilder lawn, its meadow airs. The thunk of mallets striking croquet balls. The shadow of the sandstone wall washing over the grass toward students sprawled around their books and drinks.

Pitt College had been founded in 1620, the very same year that the Mayflower had dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor. Chad would spend eight months in the city and the marvel of it all would never rub smooth.

But what was he to do? He couldn’t approach an entire family. One human being at a time he found difficult enough.

And then just as Chad had accepted the abject failure of his plan, his ideal target had arrived. Alone. Male. Heavy bags. Yes yes yes.

Chad forced his legs to start moving before his mind could round on the plan.

Part one was simple, a greeting. And then Chad would ready himself for part two of the plan, to listen out for a name, to actually retain it—a vital stage of meeting people and a hurdle he usually failed to clear, his nerves like so much white noise. And then, part three, Chad would offer to help with the bags.

‘Hi, I’m Chad,’ said Chad.

The ideal target put down his bags. And then he looked up at Chad, his lips tight against his teeth, and said, ‘Who on earth names their son after a Third World fucking country?’…



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