O what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive
When he was about four, Lucas kept a kiwi fruit as a pet. He had made a kind of crib for it out of a tin which had contained Marks & Spencers Curiously Strong Mints, and he had lined it with some cotton wool. The coverlet was a square of black fabric with the Specsavers logo on it that his father used to clean his glasses. When his dad wanted to reclaim it, Lucas wailed so piteously that his father said it was fine – he could easily get another one. Because his mother had told him that kiwi fruit are sometimes known as Chinese gooseberries, Lucas had named his pet, Penghui, after a Chinese boy at school. The crib was kept on top of a radiator in Lucas’s bedroom, despite his mother’s protests, and he kept his bedroom curtains closed at all times so that Penghui should not be disturbed. Lucas’s mother had protested about this too, but to no avail. Further tantrums had started to brew and she lacked the stamina to face them. This was a great shame, for Lucas’s father had papered his room with an aeroplane design featuring Spitfires, Hawks, Vulcans and Lancaster bombers and now no-one ever got to see them. To be honest, Lucas had been pretty indifferent towards them from the start and it was more important that Penghui’s sleep should not be disturbed by the light than anything else in the whole wide world.
In many ways, it was his mother’s fault. She had picked up the kiwi fruit during her weekly shop as a treat for Lucas, who had never seen one. When she handed it to him, without explanation, he had asked if it was alive. Amused and charmed by the idea, she had said that it was hibernating. Lucas knew what this meant because his sister, Amber, had a tortoise called Nijinsky. She had grown bored with it long ago and it had been left to her mother to feed it fruit and cabbage stalks, which it would slowly devour with its horny, beak-like mouth. He was particularly partial to red grapes which he would tear apart, exposing the glistening purple flesh beneath the skin. Apart from that he was left to wander the garden with his laborious overarm crawl. From time to time, he would be lost in the shrubbery for a couple of days, but he would always reappear to continue his random patrol of the lawn and the flowerbeds. Once, when she was about Lucas’s age, Amber had picked Nijinsky up to kiss him and he had nipped her lip and then urinated down her white party frock. She had been disgusted by the dark brown stain on her white ballet dress and the spots of blood from her lip and their estrangement had started from then.
Lucas had been with his mother in the garden shed as she prepared a hibernation box for Nijinsky. It was made from two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, and the gaps between the big box and the smaller one had been filled with those polystyrene pellets you get from Amazon for fragile purchases. There were plenty of air holes. She explained to Lucas that the inner box was to inhibit Nijinsky’s movements. A tortoise doesn’t just sit in his hibernation box like a pie, she told him. He will attempt to move about and may even wake up and try to burrow through the insulation and out of the box into the outside world. If he succeeded, exposure to extreme cold could blind him. His eyes could quite literally freeze solid. Or even worse, the cold could kill him in no time. Lucas let out a wail and shot indoors and up to his room to check on Penghui.
It was fine. Penghui was safely asleep. In any case, there was no way he could possibly eat his way out of a tin. Carefully, he lifted his pet from the crib and, cradling it in the palm of one hand, he stroked it gently, enjoying the prickly fuzz. He had no idea why the grown-ups called it a kiwi fruit when it was obviously an animal. Perhaps it was because it was a baby; it would grow up to be a kiwi, whatever that was. Grown-ups were funny. They never explained things properly. Gently, he returned Penghui to his crib. Spring was a long way away and he couldn’t wait for the kiwi to wake up and become his playmate. He imagined that its head, legs and tail had retracted into its fuzzy body, like Nijinsky’s, and that one sunny morning when the daffodils were in bloom, they would peep out. He thought a kiwi probably had four short busy legs, a stubby little tail, amd a head with little pointed ears, quivering whiskers, and a long snout with a button nose like a twitching currant. Lucas was certain that Penghui would be cute and frisky and nothing like boring old Nijinsky.
One dull morning in the middle of December, Lucas’s mother was cleaning his room and took a look at the kiwi fruit. It was very soft underneath. She realised with a pang of apprehension that very soon it would start to rot and leak. Lucas would be devastated. There were two options open to her: she could tell Lucas the truth (she would have to one day, anyway, she now realised), or she could replace it. The truth was out of the question, for now anyway. He was so besotted with the thing that she hadn’t the heart to tell him. It would be like telling a child that there was no Father Christmas. The other option was a nuisance but she would have to take it if there was to be peace in the household. Penghui would have to be replaced.
There was a problem, however. Close to the stem end of the kiwi fruit was a little black mark. It couldn’t be ignored, for Lucas had explored every millimetre of his sleeping friend and declared to his mother that when Penghui came out of hibernation, the little black mark would prove to be just over one of his eyes. Lucas was so sure of this that he was prepared to bet on it and in the end his mother found herself, contrary to common sense and with a vague feeling of alarm, betting that the little black mark would be at the tail end and not just above one of Penghui’s eyes. The stake was fifty pence.
So here she was, in the fruit and vegetable aisle at Waitrose, checking every kiwi fruit in the display to see if she could find one with a little black mark near the stem end. It was getting very close to Christmas and the store was packed. There is something about this time of year that makes it the very antithesis of the season of goodwill. Maybe it’s to do with a spurious sense of urgency; maybe it’s to do with a sense of guilt at the needless expenditure in the laden trolleys; maybe it’s the long queues at the checkouts, but shoppers in supermarkets tend to be irascible and impatient as the big day approaches. As she examined each individual fruit and turned it over in her hands with the delicacy of a surgeon, she became aware of a man, standing nearby. Raising her eyes slightly, she saw both of his hands drumming impatiently on the handle of the trolley. She raised her eyes to look at his face.
‘Any time before the New Year,’ he said.
He didn’t look the type for kiwi fruit. Or persimmons. or cumquats or lychees or star fruit or mangosteens or any of the other exotic fruits that appear in supermarkets at this time of the year. He didn’t even look the type for Waitrose, she thought.
‘It’s for my son,’ she said, realising even as she spoke that this explained nothing. She smiled thinly.
‘Oh yes. And who would he be then ? Baby Jesus?’
She looked down, offended and embarrassed and noticed that the fruit she had picked up had a little black mark near the stem end.
Her smile widened.
‘And a very happy Christmas to you too,’ she said and moved on serenely to look for chestnut stuffing and cranberry sauce, with Penghui II safely nestled among the tangerines in her trolley.
Lucas noticed nothing. He decorated the tin crib with tinsel and Christmas passed without tantrums or scenes.
Twice more, over the next month or so, Lucas’s mother struck lucky in Waitrose. The winter had been very cold and the central heatingin the house had had to be on full, day and night. Lucas refused point blank to have the crib anywhere but on the radiator, which was, of course, no place for a kiwi fruit. If she even touched it in his presence, Lucas’s lower lip would begin trembling, sure sign of an impending screaming fit. However, one afternoon in late January, she drew a complte blank in her search for Penghui V. She had handled every kiwi fruit in the box on display without success. Every single one was annoyingly perfect. Fortunately, there were very few people in the store in the post-festal doldrums and she was not interrupted. She chose one anyway, miserably thinking that she would have to dream up some excuse for the absence of the mark which Lucas would believe.
When she had finished her weekly shop, she went to the stationery aisle to look for an amusing birthday card for Lucas’s birthday which was later in the week. As she browsed her eyes lit casually on the pens nearby and then focused on the indelible marker pens. Would it work? She selected a black pen, ripped it from its packaging, removed the top, plucked the kiwi fruit from the trolley and pressed the pen against the fuzzy, green-brown skin at the stem end. It was perfection. The little black indentation looked indisputably organic. Lucas would never know the difference and, what is more, her humiliating searches through the kiwi fruit stocks were over for good. She let out an involuntary squeak of delight, to find she was being watched by an open-mouthed woman in an expensive coat.
The snow melted, the ice on the pavements receded and the trees dripped. Gradually, the temperature rose. One sunny morning in March, Lucas’s mum was depositing a pile of old magazines in the shed out of the way, when she heard Nijinsky moving about in his box. When she lifted the lid, he retired back into his shell but, all the same, the weather was mild and she judged that it was probably about time for him to wake up properly. Gingerly, she lifted him out of his box and carried him into the house and into the living room where she placed him on the carpet near the radiator. Lucas took great interest in all this, as a precedent for Penghui’s awakening and he lay on the carpet with his chin in his hands, waiting for Nijinsky to start moving about, occasionally tapping on his shell with a teaspoon.
‘Leave him alone, Lucas,’ said his mother. ‘How would you like it if I bashed you on the head with a teaspoon to wake you up? You know what a grumpy-puss you are in the morning. Let him wake up in his own time. He’s been asleep for months and it will take him a while.’
But the bottom lip started quivering and she gave up. Lucas continued to gaze at Nijinsky but deigned to let his mother take the teaspoon from him. She took it back to the kitchen. She was close to tears herself. She was going to have to tell Lucas the truth very soon. Once Nijinsky was up to speed, so to speak, and Penghui still inert, there would be no hiding it. The previous evening she had asked Lucas’s father for advice, He had not been very sympathetic.
‘It’s your own silly fault,’ he had said. Whatever possessed you to say it was hibernating in the first place. It’s obvious that it would lead to trouble.’
‘It seemed innocent enough at the time,’ she said.
‘The boy’s got far too much imagination as it is without you encouraging him.’
It may seem strange to say that their marriage was being damaged by a kiwi fruit but it was pretty much near the truth.
‘I could say that it died while it was hibernating,’ she ventured.
‘And back up one lie with another? He’s going to find out that kiwi fruit are vegetables eventually.’
‘They’re not vegetables, they’re…’
But his acid look silenced her.
‘You’d better tell him the truth as soon as possible. Only make sure I’m not in the house. The boy’s a nervous wreck as it is.’
So she was on her own. She finished peeling the potatoes, took off her marigolds, and resolved to get it over with. Just at that moment she heard him call her.
He seemed very excited.
In the living room, Nijinsky was awake and had lifted himself up on his scaly legs, while his flat head with its black pin eyes and fixed reptilian grin, moved ponderously from side to side, like a robot scanning the carpet.
‘Here goes,’ she said, coming in with a few thicknesses of double pages from The Guardian and a shallow but quite heavy earthenware bowl, containing tepid water. She set the newspaper down on the carpet and placed the bowl on top, near Nijinsky’s questing head.
‘Will he drink it?’ asked Lucas.
‘He will if you leave him alone. It’s been a very long time since he last had a drink. He’ll be very thirsty.. But he won’t if you bother him, Lucas, and if he doesn’t drink he’ll be poorly. Now, promise Mummy you’ll leave him alone..’
‘Can I watch him? Oh, look, he’s pulled his head in.’
‘I expect that’s because he doesn’t want to listen to us talking. He’s probably like Daddy. He doesn’t like people talking at breakfast time.’
‘But how can he hear us without any ears?’
‘You ask too many questions, monkey. Just sit on the sofa if you want to watch him. And don’t try to make him come out. I had to stop you sticking a twig up his tail end last summer.’
‘Never mind “yes, but”. Mummy has work to do. Now do try and behave, Lucas. Mummy has a headache.’
And she retreated into the kitchen secretly daring to hope that Nijinsky’s resurrection had taken Lucas’s mind off the wretched kiwi fruit
Back in the living room, Lucas had extended himself on his tummy on the sofa, with his head hanging over the end. Nijinsky was under close observation but from behind. Sure enough, when he judged the coast was clear, out slunk the tortoise’s head and he began to crawl laboriously towards the water. Lucas had seen a film where camouflaged soldiers were crawling through undergrowth, propelling themselves by their elbows. Nijinsky’s crawl over the pattern of the carpet reminded him of that, although his ‘elbows’ were turned out the wrong way.
In slow motion, Sergeant Nijinsky hauled himself to the watering hole, pulled himself up with his claws over the low rim, and began to sip. Then, in slow motion, he disengaged himself from the bowl, rotated – just like a tank, thought Lucas – and urinated over the masthead of The Guardian. Then he withdrew his head and limbs.
‘Mummy! Nijinsky did a wee-wee on the paper!’ shouted Lucas, pleased that someone other than himself would get into trouble.
With the patience that only mothers can summon, Lucas’s mother, picked Nijinsky up and laid him on fresh newspaper in a corner. Then she took an anglepoise lamp from her husband’s desk near the window, plugged it in, and set the lamp head about two inches above the tortoise.
‘You might think not much warmth would come from a lamp, monkey, but it will help Nijinsky readjust, you’ll see. Soon he’ll be scuttling about and then it will be time for him to go outside again.’
‘Is he not hungry, Mummy?’
‘Well, yes, probably, but his tummy is all confused and he’ll need to sort himself out. We’ll try him with a bit of lettuce in a few days’ time.’
Sure enough, later that week, Nijinsky applied himself to a heap of lettuce, cucumber and shredded carrot with considerable concentration. Ever since he had returned to the world of the living, Lucas had not once referred to Penghui, and his mother cautiously began to allow herself to feel that the crisis had resolved itself in just the same way as Amber’s interest in Nijinsky had been deflected. Even her relationship with her husband had taken a turn for the better and he was coming home from the office earlier in the evenings. Lucas seemed obsessed with Nijinsky and would watch him for long periods, even when he retracted into his shell.
Later Lucas moved Penghui from his tin on the radiator in his room to his little blue dinosaur activity desk and placed him underneath his Batman lamp on a copy of The Beano. His father had The Beano delivered along with The Guardian and The Observer, hoping that his son would take an interest in the comic and that it would help him with his reading. Of course, his mother knew that her husband had really ordered The Beano for himself and had done so since he was at university. Lucas had been largely indifferent but the latest copy would serve a purpose now if Penghui needed a wee. Without saying a word, he had taken a shell-shaped soap dish from the guest bathroom and filled it with water, placing it reverentially near Penghui, along with some Haribos.
However, nothing was said, and Lucas’s mother took heart from that, and the fact that Lucas appeared to have turned his attention entirely to Nijinsky and to the Lego Junior Police Helicopter Set his father had bought him.
She couldn’t have been more wrong. Lucas was playing the long game.
One bright, clear morning, two days after Nijinsky had resumed feeding and rhomboids of sunshine fell from the windows and onto the carpet, Lucas’s mother said: ‘I think we’ll pop Nijinsky into the garden this afternoon, monkey. It should be warm enough by then.
Like all small boys, Lucas had a strong sense of injustice. There was Nijinsky, under the coffee table, smugly asleep in his shell. That very afternoon he would be zooming around the lawn or plunging into the shrubbery, while poor Penghui lay upstairs, in an enchanted sleep more profound, and possibly more fateful, than that in which the Sleeping Beauty had been enshrouded. How to break the spell? Lucas reasoned that he had replicated the conditions in which Nijinsky had come back to life to the letter. He had been placed on paper with water close by. He had been set beneath a lamp. What had he missed?
He sat astride the broad arm of the sofa which he regarded as his horse. It was a good place to think, sitting there in the saddle. He noticed that a patch of light on the carpet had moved a little, from a cluster of roses to a flourish of dark leaves. He tried to catch the light moving but it was impossible, and yet, and yet…there it was illuminating the next knot of pink flowers.
Suddenly, Lucas knew what he must do. It was to do with being downstairs. It probably had something to do with the carpet itself. It would remind Penghui of being outdoors.
Lucas tiptoed upstairs to his room and with infinite care carried Penghui and the soap dish of water to the living room, where he set them down in front of the french windows, at exactly the spot where Nijinsky had come back to life just over a week ago. Then he lay down on his front, his chin in his hands, to watch the awakening which he thought must be inevitable – and imminent.
‘Lucas!’ his mother called from the kitchen. ‘Come and get your lunch.’
‘I’m not hungry, Mummy,’ he replied.
‘Don’t be silly. It’s your favourite. Tomato soup with croissants.’
‘No really. I’m not hungry.’
‘Lucas, I don’t have time for this. Come in here this instant.’
Wearily, Lucas clambered to his feet and slouched towards the kitchen, with a backward glance at where Penghui lay on the carpet. What if he woke up while he was having his boring old lunch? He would miss the most important moment in his entire life. And Penghui would feel so lonely, waking up on his own. And tomato soup wasn’t his favourite anyway. Pizza was.
Anyway, he wasn’t going to tell his mother anything. She would only spoil things. Grown-ups always did. He climbed up on his stool at the brunch bar and tried to look as sullen as he could. He stirred the steaming soup around a few times and then sat there with his spoon dangling vertically from his right hand. In his left he clutched a croissant and he rested his head on his knuckles.. There were buttery flakes in his hair and all over the bar.
His mother tried to engage him in conversation. He would be starting school in September. It would be really exciting and he would make lots of new friends. There would be all sorts of games and activities and Mrs Parry was such a sweetie. He would learn ever so much and might even achieve his ambition to run a Circus in Space.
Normally, this would have set him prattling about what kind of alien animals he would have in his menagerie and the feats his interstellar acrobats would perform. Today, however, he said nothing. He put the squashed croissant down, rubbed his hair into greasy spikes and continued to play with his soup, lifting a spoonful into the air and letting it splash into the bowl.
His mother hoped she was right about big school. Nursery school had not been particularly successful. Lucas, whilst not particularly unhappy, had seemed to prefer his own company. The friendly advances of other children had been rebuffed. He had splashed blue paint on Jessica Glenn’s picture of her mother, which had been unintentionally scary any way. He had filled Charlie Vereker’s wellies with sand from the sandpit and then tipped the sand over Charlie’s head when he protested. Any reprimand from Miss Charig would be met with volcanic tantrums, and on several occasions she had been forced to ring Lucas’ mother and ask for him to be taken home. These explosions terrified the other children and it was not surprising that they had begun to shun him.
‘Lucas, will you stop playing with your food,’ she now said sharply.
‘I told you I wasn’t hungry but you wouldn’t listen.’
‘There’ll be no Petit Filou for you if you don’t eat your soup. And look at the mess you’ve made. You really are an exasperating little boy, Lucas.’
‘I don’t want a bloody Petit Filou! I bloody hate them. It’s you who thinks I like them. They’re bloody horrible and bloody bloody slimy!’ he screamed, hurling his spoon on the bar so hard that it bounced off into the sink with a clang.
‘Lucas! I will not tolerate such language. Go to your room. How dare you?’
‘I will NOT go to my room,’ said Lucas deliberately, catching and holding her eye for the first time. Then he swung off his stool and bashed through the door into the living room with his mother in pursuit.
Then they both stood stock still.
Nijinsky had crawled across the carpet and was eating Penghui.
He had about a quarter of him in his mouth lengthwise. The horny beak pierced the brown fur, exposing the jewel green flesh with its little black seeds. Juice dribbled under the reptile’s old man’s chin. The beak pierced the skin again and the tortoise showed his repellent pink tongue and swallowed a little more.
Lucas screamed and screamed. Lucas would not stop screaming.
Lucas is seventeen now. He has not spoken a word since Penghui was killed, though he still has screamig fits at intervals. At first the family tried to cope with this. Nijinsky had to be given away to a tortoise sanctuary in Kent, after Lucas had made several attempts to harm him, once with a hammer. Amber, who had not shown the slightest interest in him for months, was suddenly anguished about his departure.
Most of the time Lucas lay on his bed staring at the ceiling, refusing to communicate in any way. If he came downstairs, he would stand at the french windows gazing into the garden, but could not be persuaded to go out. He would not make eye contact. He would either look away or stare right through your head. At first their GP maintained that his silence was the result of shock, a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. It didn’t matter that the stress had been caused by a vivid imagination and was in itself ludicrous. It was nonetheless powerful. The good news was that it was almost certainly temporary.
Whatever was wrong with Lucas, the most alarming symptom was his refusal to eat. He would sit at the table with his hands in his lap, looking at nothing. If his mother attempted to feed him, he would whimper, or sob as if he were out of breath – sure prelude to a tantrum if the food were not whisked away quickly. Fruit could not be put on the table, any salad with lettuce or cucumber in it would prompt a flare-up and, one evening, he demolished a large apple pie with his fists. His parents could only surmise that this was because the pie had reminded him of a tortoise.
It was not long before his dramatic weight loss – he had been a chubby child hitherto – persuaded the GP that he wasn’t going to get better on his own and he was referrred to a children’s mental health clinic and admitted for his own safety.
He was well-treated. The ward was clean and the nurses caring and committed. There was little that could be done for him in terms of therapy. How could you treat someone who would not speak? Progress was made with his eating, however, largely through trial and error. He would agree to eat porridge, in tiny portions at first, and then increasingly large portions with honey stirred in.
There had been setbacks, of course. He had hurled a bowl of sago pudding at a nurse and he had to be isolated on the occasion when he had attacked another child with a stick of celery.
The only time he had been persuaded to communicate, he drew a picture of a child, presumably himself, with ears and hair, but no facial features whatever.
And so he continued, in this condition, until the age of sixteen, when by law he had to undergo the transition to an adult institution.
There he is now, living on porridge and scrambled eggs and sometimes Marmite toast, a recent addition to his diet. He is treated well because he causes no trouble. He can dress himself and keep himself clean and he doesn’t wander or get under the feet of the nurses. He doesn’t need any medication because there is no known treatment for his condition. Unlike many of the other patients, he does not require sedation. He is often allowed to sit alone on a bench in the garden for the whole day. His parents, now divorced, rarely visit and if they do he doesn’t recognise them.
On rainy days he sits in the day room. The scenes around him are appalling. There is a man who keeps whispering to him that he has sex with flies. Another claims to be attracted to the space shuttle and says that he wants to be a welding machine when he’s released, which he always insists will be the day after tomorrow.One believes his penis is stolen by demons overnight and replaced in the morning. One man sits in a corner facing the wall and keens all day long. Several are as dissociated as Lucas but that is because they are so heavily medicated. Most of these people are filthy and bedraggled and the room smells of urine and sometimes vomit. Lucas is oblivious to all this.
Lucas rarely has tantrums now. If he could tell you, or wanted to, Lucas would say that he feels unreal, as if he is watching himself in a film. Everyone around him is a stranger. His surroundings are different every day. He doesn’t recognise his image in a mirror. He is waiting patiently for the day when a giant tortoise will arrive and release him from his internment by ripping apart his green flesh and eating him.
© Ian Thomson 2016
First Published in Come Away, O Human Child, and Other Tales – Available on Amazon