Excerpt from 'Black Swan Green'

book.jpgBlack Swan Green

A Novel
By David Mitchell

Random House

Copyright © 2006 David Mitchell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-4000-6379-5

Chapter One



Do not set foot in my office. That's Dad's rule. But the phone'd rung twenty-five times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it's a matter of life or death. Don't they? Dad's got an answering machine like James Garner's in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he's stopped leaving it switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn't hear it up in her converted attic 'cause "Don't You Want Me?" by Human League was thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn't hear 'cause the washing machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty rings. That's just not normal. S'pose Dad'd been mangled by a juggernaut on the M5 and the police only had this office number 'cause all his other I.D.'d got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in the terminal ward.

So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeard's chamber after being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dad's office smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. There's a serious clock on the wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school. There's a photo of Dad shaking hands with Craig Salt when Dad got made regional sales director for Greenland. (Greenland the supermarket chain, not Greenland the country.) Dad's IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phone's red like a nuclear hotline and it's got buttons you push, not the dial you get on normal phones. So anyway, I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said our number. I can say that without stammering, at least. Usually.

But the person on the other end didn't answer. "Hello?" I said. "Hello?"

They breathed in like they'd cut themselves on paper.

"Can you hear me? I can't hear you."

Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.

"If you can hear me"-I remembered a Children's Film Foundation film where this happened-"tap the phone, once."

There was no tap, just more Sesame Street.

"You might have the wrong number," I said, wondering.

A baby began wailing and the receiver was slammed down.

When people listen they make a listening noise.

I'd heard it, so they'd heard me.

"May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief." Miss Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. 'Cause I'd sort of had a reason to have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dad's razor-sharp blind, over the glebe, past the cockerel tree, over more fields, up to the Malvern Hills. Pale morning, icy sky, frosted crusts on the hills, but no sign of sticking snow, worse luck. Dad's swivelly chair's a lot like the Millennium Falcon's laser tower. I blasted away at the skyful of Russian MiGs streaming over the Malverns. Soon tens of thousands of people between here and Cardiff owed me their lives. The glebe was littered with mangled fusilages and blackened wings. I'd shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as they pressed their ejector seats. Our marines'll mop them up. I'd refuse all medals. "Thanks, but no thanks," I'd tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan when Mum invited them in, "I was just doing my job."

Dad's got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencils're sharpest, they're Dad's faves. I prefer 2Bs.

The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked I'd left no other traces of my incursion, slipped out, and flew downstairs to see who it was. The last six steps I took in one death-defying bound.

Moron, grinny-zitty as ever. His bumfluff's getting thicker, mind. "You'll never guess what!"


"You know the lake in the woods?"

"What about it?"

"It's only"-Moron checked that we weren't being overheard-"gone and froze solid! Half the kids in the village're there, right now. Ace doss or what?" "Jason!" Mum appeared from the kitchen. "You're letting the cold in! Either invite Dean inside-hello Dean-or shut the door."

"Um ... just going out for a bit, Mum."

"Um ... where?"

"Just for some healthy fresh air."

That was a strategic mistake. "What are you up to?"

I wanted to say "Nothing" but Hangman decided not to let me. "Why would I be up to anything?" I avoided her stare as I put on my navy duffel coat.

"What's your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?"

I still couldn't say "Nothing." (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as a hard-knock. Adults can't be expected to understand.) "My duffel's a bit warmer, that's all. It's parky out."

"Lunch is one o'clock sharp." Mum went back to changing the Hoover bag. "Dad's coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your head'll freeze." Woolly hats're gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.

"Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor," said Moron.

"Good-bye, Dean," said Mum.

Mum's never liked Moron.

Moron's my height and he's okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage that pongs of gravy too. His real name's Dean Moran (rhymes with "warren") but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him "Moron" in our first week and it's stuck. I call him "Dean" if we're on our own but name's aren't just names. Kids who're really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew's always just "Nick." Kids who're a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have sort of respectful nicknames like "Yardy." Next down are kids like me who call each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, who's Knickerless Bra. It's all ranks, being a boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just "Swinyard," he'd kick my face in. Or if I called Moron "Dean" in front of everyone, it'd damage my own standing. So you've got to watch out.

Girls don't do this so much, 'cept for Dawn Madden, who's a boy gone wrong in some experiment. Girls don't scrap so much as boys either. (That said, just before school broke up for Christmas, Dawn Madden and Andrea Bozard started yelling "Bitch!" and "Slag!" in the bus queues after school. Punching tits and pulling hair and everything, they were.) Wish I'd been born a girl, sometimes. They're generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that out loud I'd get bumhole plummer scrawled on my locker. That happened to Floyd Chaceley for admitting he liked Johann Sebastian Bach. Mind you, if they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in Black Swan Green Parish Magazine, was me, they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.

So anyway, as Moron and I walked to the lake he told me about the Scalectrix he'd got for Christmas. On Boxing Day its transformer blew up and nearly wiped out his entire family. "Yeah, sure," I said. But Moron swore it on his nan's grave. So I told him he should write to That's Life on BBC and get Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron thought that might be difficult 'cause his dad'd bought it off a Brummie at Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didn't dare ask what a "Brummie" was in case it's the same as "bummer" or "bumboy," which means homo. "Yeah," I said, "see what you mean." Moron asked me what I'd got for Christmas. I'd actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but books're gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which I'd got from Uncle Brian and Aunt Alice. It's a board game you win by getting your little car to the end of the road of life first, and with the most money. We crossed the crossroads by the Black Swan and went into the woods. Wished I'd rubbed ointment into my lips 'cause they get chapped when it's this cold. Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. "Last one to the lake's a spaz!" yelled Moron, haring off before I was ready. Straight off he tripped over a frozen tire rut, went flying, and landed on his arse. Trust Moran. "I think I might've got a concussion," he said.

"Concussion's if you hit your head. Unless your brain's up your arse." What a line. Pity nobody who matters was around to hear it.

The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in Fox's Glacier Mints. Neal Brose had proper Olympic ice skates he hired out for 5p a go, though Pete Redmarley was allowed to use them for free so other kids'd see him speed-skating around and want a go too. Just staying up on the ice is hard enough. I fell over loads before I got the knack of sliding in my trainers. Ross Wilcox turned up with his cousin Gary Drake and Dawn Madden. All three're pretty good skaters. Drake and Wilcox're taller than me too now. (They'd cut the fingers off of their gloves to show the scars they'd got playing Scabby Queen. Mum'd murder me.) Squelch sat on the humpy island in the middle of the lake where the ducks normally live, shouting, "Arse over tit! Arse over tit!" at whoever fell over. Squelch's funny in the head 'cause he was born too early, so nobody ever thumps him one. Not hard, anyway. Grant Burch rode his servant Philip Phelps's Raleigh Chopper actually on the ice. He kept his balance for a few seconds, but when he pulled a wheelie the bike went flying. After it landed it looked like Uri Geller'd tortured it to death. Phelps grinned sickly. Bet he was wondering what he'd tell his dad. Then Pete Redmarley and Grant Burch decided the frozen lake'd be perfect for British Bulldogs. Nick Yew said, "Okay, I'm on for that," so it was decided.

I hate British Bulldogs. When Miss Throckmorton banned it at our primary school after Lee Biggs lost three teeth playing it, I was dead relieved. But this morning any kid who denied loving British Bulldogs'd've looked a total ponce. Specially kids from up Kingfisher Meadows like me.

About twenty or twenty-five of us boys, plus Dawn Madden, stood in a bunch to be picked like slaves in a slave market. Grant Burch and Nick Yew were joint captains of one team. Pete Redmarley and Gilbert Swinyard were the captains of the other. Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake both got picked before me by Pete Redmarley, but I got picked by Grant Burch on the sixth pass, which wasn't embarrassingly late. Moron and Squelch were the last two left.

Grant Burch and Pete Redmarley joked, "No, you can have 'em both, we want to win!" and Moron and Squelch had to laugh like they thought it was funny too. Maybe Squelch really did. (Moron didn't. When everyone looked away, he had the same face as that time after we all told him we were playing Hide-and-Seek and sent him off to hide. It took an hour for him to work out nobody was looking for him.) Nick Yew won the toss so us lot were the Runners first and Pete Redmarley's team were the Bulldogs. Unimportant kids' coats were put at either end of the lake as goalmouths to reach through and to defend. Girls, apart from Dawn Madden, and the littl'uns were cleared off the ice. Redmarley's Bulldogs formed a pack in the middle and us Runners slid to our starting goal. My heart was drumming now. Bulldogs and Runners crouched like sprinters. The captains led the chant. "British Bulldogs! One two three!"

Screaming like kamikazes, we charged. I slipped over (accidentally on purpose) just before the front wave of Runners smashed into the Bulldogs. This'd tie up most of the hardest Bulldogs in fights with our front Runners. (Bulldogs have to pin down both shoulders of Runners onto the ice for long enough to shout "British Bulldogs one two three.") With luck, my strategy'd clear some spaces to dodge through and on to our home goalposts. My plan worked pretty well at first. The Tookey brothers and Gary Drake all crashed into Nick Yew. A flying leg kicked my shin but I got past them without coming a cropper. But then Ross Wilcox came homing in on me. I tried to wriggle past but Wilcox got a firm grip on my wrist and tried to pull me down. But instead of trying to struggle free I got a firmer grip on his wrist and flung him off me, straight into Ant Little and Darren Croome. Ace in the face or what?

Games and sports aren't about taking part or even about winning. Games and sports're really about humiliating your enemies. Lee Biggs tried a poxy rugby tackle on me but I shook him free no sweat. He's too worried about the teeth he's got left to be a decent Bulldog. I was the fourth Runner home. Grant Burch shouted, "Nice work Jacey-boy!" Nick Yew'd fought free of the Tookeys and Gary Drake and got home too. About a third of the Runners got captured and turned into Bulldogs for the next pass. I hate that about British Bulldogs.

It forces you to be a traitor.

So anyway, we all chanted, "British Bulldogs one two THREE!" and charged like last time but this time I had no chance. Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake and Dawn Madden targeted me from the start. No matter how I tried to dodge through the fray it was hopeless. I hadn't got halfway across the lake before they got me. Ross Wilcox went for my legs, Gary Drake toppled me, and Dawn Madden sat on my chest and pinned my shoulders down with her knees. I just lay there and let them convert me into a Bulldog. In my heart I'd always be a Runner. Gary Drake gave me a dead leg, which might or might not've been on purpose. Dawn Madden's got cruel eyes like a Chinese empress and sometimes one glimpse at school makes me think about her all day.

Ross Wilcox jumped up and punched the air like he'd scored at Old Trafford. The spazzo. "Yeah, yeah, Wilcox," I said, "three against one, well done."

Wilcox flashed me a V-sign and slid off for another battle. Grant Burch and Nick Yew came windmilling at a thick pocket of Bulldogs and half of them went flying. Then Gilbert Swinyard yelled at the top of his lungs, "PIIIIIILEONNNNNN!"

That was the signal for every Runner and every Bulldog on the lake to throw themselves onto a wriggling, groaning, growing pyramid of kids. The game itself was sort of forgotten. I held back, pretending to limp a bit from my dead leg. Then we heard the sound of a chain saw in the woods, flying down the track, straight toward us.

The chain saw wasn't a chain saw. It was Tom Yew on his purple Suzuki 150cc scrambler. Pluto Noak was clinging to the back, without a helmet. British Bulldogs was aborted 'cause Tom Yew's a minor legend in Black Swan Green. Tom Yew serves in the Royal Navy on a frigate called HMS Coventry. Tom Yew's got every Led Zep album ever made and can play the guitar introduction to "Stairway to Heaven." Tom Yew's actually shaken hands with Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper. Pluto Noak's a less shiny legend. He left school without even taking his CSEs last year. Now he works in the Pork Scratchings factory in Upton-on-Severn. (There's rumors Pluto Noak's smoked cannabis but obviously it wasn't the type that cauliflowerizes your brain and makes you jump off roofs onto railings.) Tom Yew parked his Suzuki by the bench on the narrow end of the lake and sat on it, sidesaddle. Pluto Noak thumped his back to say thanks and went to speak to Collette Bozard, who, according to Moron's sister Kelly, he's had sexual intercourse with. The older kids sat on the bench facing him, like Jesus's disciples, and passed round fags. (Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake smoke now. Worse still, Ross Wilcox asked Tom Yew something about Suzuki silencers and Tom Yew answered him like Ross Wilcox was eighteen too.) Grant Burch told his servant Phelps to run and get him a peanut Yorkie and a can of Top Deck from Rhydd's Shop, yelling after him, "Run, I told yer!" to impress Tom Yew. Us middle-rank kids sat round the bench on the frosty ground. The older kids started talking about the best things on TV over Christmas and New Year's. Tom Yew started saying he'd seen The Great Escape and everyone agreed everything else'd been crap compared to The Great Escape, specially the bit where Steve McQueen gets caught by Nazis on the barbed wire. But then Tom Yew said he thought it'd gone on a bit long and everyone agreed that though the film was classic it'd dragged on for ages. (I didn't see it 'cause Mum and Dad watched the Two Ronnies Christmas special. But I paid close attention so I can pretend to've watched it when school starts next Monday.)



Excerpted from Black Swan Green by David Mitchell Copyright © 2006 by David Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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