Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Terminal Velocity

This was the first real story I ever wrote, back in school in 1987. I substantially reworked it about ten years later, but the basics are the same.

….Falling, falling, helplessly falling with an empty body and an empty mind, the dark building an eternally tall wall beside, set with rows of windows, blind squares of infinite darkness. All shades of darkness everywhere, the falling felt deep in my stomach and the air pulled from my lungs until I’m…..

……coming awake in bed with my hands clutching my blanket so tightly my fingers hurt. Moonlight through the window, splashing over the bed like milk. It reminds me of the time when Mummy and Daddy were still there for me and we still lived at home. Whatever happened to them? I ask all of them often, but they won’t tell me. Surely I’m old enough to be told now, but they still won’t say a thing. They’re such mean old things, all of them, here.

Back at home I used to sleep with my toys. It’s been so long since I last had a toy. Like the little train set that I’ve been wanting for so long, the one with the black steam engine and red carriages and real tracks and even a tunnel. I saw it in the window of the toy-shop, the one opposite that signboard I used to see every day till I got to know it by heart even though I couldn’t read it. I can’t remember it now, though. They’ve taken my memory away.

The other day they gave me a sort of stuffed deer with funny squiggly horns to play with. They told me it was called an an-ti-loap. I threw it out of the window yesterday, and that fat lady in the funny dress they told me to call Matron was so angry at me that she made me cry.

I never liked that deer anyway.

What funny clothes they wear here! All those long grey or white things like gowns, and the funny little hats sometimes, and the women never wear lipstick like Mummy did. Oh I remember Mummy’s lipstick, it was red, hard and somehow soft at the same time. Once I found it on her dressing table and bit a piece off, but it tasted so nasty and greasy I spat it right out again. I can remember all that, so why can’t I remember the sign outside the toy-shop?

They have grilles on the windows here, and there is a palm tree just outside. How I hate palm trees now. I can’t even play pretend-games with it, like being a shipwrecked sailor on a desert island, because they won’t let me out long enough. They say it’s because I might hurt myself. Well, at least I threw that toy deer out. If they ever give it back I shall throw it out again.

They can stop me from going out, but they can’t stop me from doing that.

There are ants on the palm tree, and sometimes they crawl up on to my window sill. Then I can have some pretend-games with the ants, and they – Matron and the others – can’t do a thing about it. Daddy told me once, I forget when, except it was back in the old days of course, that ants have queens, soldiers and workers. So I always look carefully for crowns and guns, but never find any. Perhaps the ants hide them from me. 

I wonder where Daddy is now.

They tell me they’re going to teach me to read and write. So every day a man comes and makes me copy down funny symbols that look like bugs, only they’re called ‘letters’. One of them – for some reason it comes first in line – looks something like a pole jammed crosswise between two others. It looks like the framework of that funny tent called a wigwam, the one we built the other day in the fields behind this place. That had been a nice day. One felt like rolling on the grass and yelling, so I did. But, later, I cut my hand on a piece of glass and it bled a lot and hurt quite a lot, too, and then they were all so irritated……..

….just as irritated as they get when I get bored with their lessons and make that "A" (it’s called ‘ay’) into a house and chimney. There are twenty-five other letters, too, and with a little imagination one can change them into spiders and things. Some of those letters appeared on the signboard, the one opposite the toy-shop that I just can’t seem to, for some reason, recall. I wish I could. No, it’s not important, not really, only it’s from the place with the sign that I came here. Now that I can read a little (and wouldn’t Mummy be proud of me if she knew I can read! How I wish I knew where she was so I could let her know), if I could remember the sign I could probably read it. All the same, it would probably be meaningless even then. Never mind, I’ll remember in a couple of minutes, and then we’ll see.

I remember a little bit about how I got here, though. It all began quite a while ago, back when we were all living at home, Mummy and Daddy and my little sister Dolly, and I, of course. One night Daddy had been drinking the medicine out of the big bottle again, rather a lot of it this time. Later he took out the car to fetch Dolly from her friend’s birthday party, only they didn’t come back and they didn’t come back. Mummy put me to bed but waited up herself and after a long time I woke up when the phone rang and I heard Mummy crying. 

Next day a lot of people came, some of whom I had never seen before, and Mummy was still crying when she broke all of Daddy’s medicine bottles and poured all the yellow medicine down the kitchen sink. A few hours later Daddy came back, only there was no Dolly and he had a big bandage round his head and another on his left arm, which was in a sling. Afterwards they told me there had been an accident and Dolly had gone to God. I asked when she was coming back, and then said I wanted to go to God too. They all started crying and aid those who went to God didn’t come back, and because they were all crying, I got scared and started crying, too. But later, when all the people had left, Mummy and Daddy started quarrelling and kept it up all night.

A few days after this, after Dolly’s funeral, Daddy took all his things and went away. I never saw him again after that, and I don’t know here he is now.

It was some time after this that The Man came to live with Mummy and me. Mummy used to tell me to call him Daddy, but I could never think of him as anything except That Man. I was frightened sick of him, because he hated me, and very often he used to hit me. A couple of times he knocked me down and hurt me quite badly.

Mummy started taking me to the place with the signboard soon after this – I think The Man forced her to, because she used to cry a lot afterwards. The last time I saw Mummy was there at the signboard place, and she was crying and kissing me. It was quite some time ago and I have no idea where she is now, either.
Ever since then I’ve been here and isn’t it just like them to make me take lessons. Almost every day, too, except Christmas Day when we had a party with a lovely tree and then we played hide-and-seek. I’m very good at finding good hiding places, and I bet nobody would have found me behind the pile of old trunks if that fancy hat I’d been given hadn’t stuck out. Still, I think the other Matron, the one with the yellow eyes, told on me. I know she’s got it in for me, though I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I put salt in her tea once when she wasn’t looking.

Lessons! They make us learn those letters and make sentences out of them, and last week they told us about something called a ‘sentence’, but I’ve forgotten everything I was told, so I’ll have to be told again. Also, we’re made to fool around with little bits of paper and cloth, which we have to cut up and stick together, or fold, to make little coloured birds and flowers and things. I don’t understand this. Once I asked why we had to do this when there were real live birds and flowers outside, but nobody explained. They get really mad at us if we don’t do it right. They try not to show it, but we can tell. Once a week a lady in glasses, or sometimes it’s a tall thin man, comes around and asks us silly questions we have to answer.

Oh yes, numbers! They’re making us do sums with mangoes, peaches, and apples. The teacher asked me, if I had ten apples and I gave five to Ruby, how many I would have left. How I tried to make her understand that I wouldn’t give a single apple, or anything else, to Ruby, because she’s got a red rubber ball she never uses but won’t let anyone else touch either. The teacher said that wasn’t the point. Then what is?
It’s morning now. I’m sitting at my window, eating an apple. We got an apple each for breakfast today, as a treat, but I kept mine for later. I can hear someone on the phone in the hallway. It can’t be one of us, because we aren’t allowed to touch it. Whoever it is is saying "Hold on…."

Oh, hold on, don’t go away. I’ve just remembered the lettering on that signboard. I knew I’d get it in the end. But didn’t I tell you it would be meaningless? It’s even more so than I expected:

Ins…institution? Just for example, what does that mean?

Two ants on the window sill catch my attention. They’re pulling at something beside my long grey beard (isn’t it nice to be grey? There are only a few of us grey ones here, and I’m very proud of it). The ants are fighting over a crumb of bread.

Isn’t it wonderful? I don’t fight for my bread. They give it to me. 

Copyright B Purkayastha 1987/2012

1 comment:

  1. Very good first effort. You had me wondering just where the narrator was.
    Being a bit grey myself, I'll say that being grey is a nice thing. It is a bit better than the alternative for starters. LOL, some choice, turn grey or die.


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