The 88

2008

If you are reading this you have to stop. This is for Doctor Sullivan. If you are still reading this and you are not Doctor Sullivan then you are sinning and you will go to hell, according to Magda.

We’re all God’s children, says Magda, who helps take care of me. She is one of the nurses, my favorite one. She makes sure I eat a healthy breakfast and get some exercise, and other things.

For breakfast I have yogurt, fruit, and toast with peanut butter. After breakfast it’s time to get some exercise. Exercise is important for a healthy body and a healthy mind. We go for a walk in the yard if the weather is nice. If it is raining we do something indoors, like learning to juggle. I am not very good at juggling. I think I am going to catch the beanbag, but it is not where I think it should be. Sometimes I think I am getting better at juggling, but sometimes I think I am getting worse.

God watches everything we do, says Magda, and even though I’m not as smart as everyone else I’m still special in his eyes.

Back in the ward we have lunch. Before we eat we say a prayer to God. After lunch Magda lets us watch TV. I like cartoons like Oh No Barbarians! and the other one with the scientist and the boy. There’s also another show I like that I will tell you about in a bit.

As you know, Summer is my best friend. We became friends as long ago as I can remember. She didn’t like me before I was how I am now. She said I was mean. Summer is here because she tried to burn down a police station.

Summer did my horoscope and says that I am a Virgo.

I told Summer about the cartoon with the scientist and the boy and she said I probably like it because I used to be a scientist in a previous life.

I am black, says Summer, didn’t you realize? This is confusing because she doesn’t look black. She looks whiter than anyone. I have a condition called vitiligo which makes my skin white, but I am black, she says. She doesn’t say African American because we are in Canada.

I see Summer in the common area in the mornings. Sometimes we play dominoes together. In the afternoon I have my medication, and Magda says I need a nap, so she helps me take a shower and then we go to my room. Magda says that God intended man and woman to lie together, so we are not sinning. All the same, I am not supposed to tell anyone or I will get in trouble.

After nap time I go back to the common area and watch videos. Today I watched several episodes of the boy and the scientist one. I remember now that it is called The Blue Mask. It is about an ancient magical mask that puts you inside the head of people in the past. The boy puts on the mask and kapow he’s a civil war soldier or the judge at Washington’s trial. At the end the scientist explains what happened, which is usually the exact opposite of what the boy thought happened.

It’s quite complicated for a cartoon.

After that it is time for dinner. My favorite is pizza but we have to eat it whatever it is. Usually it is complicated food like fish or chicken. It is always something full of bones.

Once a week I get to see you, Doctor Sullivan. A doctor is a scientist who helps people get better. Doctor Sullivan is trying to help me get better.

Getting better involves talking to the doctor, taking pills, and sometimes having the electrical treatment. I like the talking to the doctor part, especially because afterwards Magda gives me ice-cream.

Hello Jesus, how are you today he will ask. You are not supposed to say how you actually are, but say fine. This is where it starts getting confusing.

Also I should have mentioned that my name is Jesus. I am Jesus Hernandez. I am eighteen years old. For a while I thought my name was Da and that I was a woman, but that is one of the bad thoughts that make it harder for me to get better. I once killed a man and a woman in a trailer park because I had taken a drug that made me think that they were demons.

Fine, I say. And how do you feel? he will ask. This time you are supposed to actually say how you are. I will tell him how my juggling is, or if I got confused by a video. Mostly he just listens to me and if I stop talking he will wait for a moment and then ask me a question about what I just said. You have to be careful to say the right things.

I always feel better after talking to Doctor Sullivan. I think you feel better too. This time you seemed a bit sad about something. You should have some ice cream afterwards too.

It turns out Summer is not black after all. She just said she was black to see if I would believe her, and I did. I was mad at her and wouldn’t have lunch with her. After she ate, I ate.

Today I asked Doctor Sullivan, will I ever be normal again, which I have asked him many times. He usually answers with a question, like what does being normal mean to you, or what would I do differently if I was normal, but this time he just stared out of the window and sighed.

When you sigh it means you are sad. Things will get better, Doctor Sullivan!

Doctor Sullivan asks if I still mix up dreams and reality. They tell me I was very violent when I came here, and then I had a breakdown and stopped talking to anyone. Then I started being who I am now, a person they say is very different to the one who came in. I don’t remember anything from before. I tell Doctor Sullivan what I think he wants to hear because I didn’t want to have to answer more questions. I was ready for ice cream.

I like chocolate ice cream but it’s okay if you like a different flavor. We are all God’s children.

This morning Magda and I went out and played basketball. She is very interested in me being fit and healthy. Sometimes she takes video with her video camera, like when we are in bed. This time something strange happened. Right in the middle of a jump shot I suddenly remembered being in a temple and there was lots of shouting and smoke. We were pushing over a statue. Luckily the memory did not put me off too much and I made the shot and Magda caught it on video.

Apparently I am not tall enough to be a professional basketball player.

For lunch today we had asparagus, the king of vegetables. I asked Magda, why doesn’t asparagus make my wee smell funny?

She said where did you hear about that and I told her it was in In Up The Khazi. Private Askwith had asparagus for dinner and someone did a wee on Colonel DeMontfort’s wife and they could tell it was Askwith because asparagus makes your wee smell funny, but it never does that to me.

I then had to go into great detail explaining about the show and Magda insisted on explaining to me why someone might enjoy someone else peeing on them, and I never really got an answer about the asparagus.

Up The Khazi is a British comedy series from the 1980s. It is set in British India during the war. There is never any war fighting though. They just get into silly adventures with each other and with the Indians. My favourite character is Private Askwith, a cockney Londoner who is always randy and always coming up with get-rich schemes that go wrong. I also like the black man, Sergeant Katanga. he is always angry and shouting at the other soldiers.

I started watching Up The Khazi when I ran out of episodes of Oh No Barbarians! There are only three seasons of Up The Khazi; they stopped making it after people said that it was racist.

Watching a show like Up The Khazi is a bit like peeling an onion. There’s the outside of the onion, which is you. Then there is another layer, which is the person the show thinks you are, that you kind of pretend to be to watch the show. Then there is the meaning that the show thinks it has, which is about soldiers stealing ghost costumes to frighten Corporal McKenzie and instead getting shot at by Sergeant Katanga. Then there is the meaning the show really has, which is all the race and class political meanings that make things funny. Then more layers of language and culture. All these layers are things that you have to agree to so you can watch the story, like agreeing to the rules of a game.

Yesterday I wrote the words above and today I have no idea what they mean. Why would a video be like an onion? That’s stupid.

Today Magda was mad at me. She was all silent and snapped at me when I talked to her. In the end I asked her why she was mad at me and she told me she thought I had told you about what we do. I told her I hadn’t, which was true because I hadn’t. In the end we ended up kissing and we went and had a nap even though we hadn’t even had lunch yet.

When we have sex Magda likes me to hold her down, like I’m forcing her to have sex and she doesn’t want to, even though she’s the one telling me exactly what to do.

People only show a fraction of their feelings. They are like icebergs. Do you know what that means, says Magda.

It means they are cold.

I am even better at sex than I am at basketball. I can go for hours and hours. I understand from movies and things I read that there’s supposed to be a special moment at the end, but I never get to that point. Maybe it’s something that the electricity did to my brain. Magda says I am a sex machine.

Summer doesn’t want to have sex, even though she is supposed to because she is a woman. I told her I was a sex machine and she was cross and said I was being inappropriate.

Summer is an inappropriate name for an iceberg, I said, but she didn’t understand.

I have watched all the episodes of Up The Khazi so now I’m watching another old British comedy show. It’s by the same writer, but it’s even older. It’s set in a hospital in London and it’s called Shit Here Comes Matron. The actor who plays Captain DeMontfort is in it, but in this show he’s a doctor called Doctor Poncely.

It’s very confusing when the same person is another person. When he’s Captain DeMontfort he always shouts I don’t believe it! but when he’s Doctor Poncely he always says Ooooh you little bastard! In one episode he called his sandwich a little bastard because it had the wrong filling.

The matron isn’t funny herself, but most of the jokes happen because of her. She is a very fat bossy lady who is in charge of the nurses, who are all young and sexy and pretty. The patients never seem to actually be sick, and are usually doing something they aren’t supposed to do, like building a whisky still in a broom cupboard, or making soup out of people’s pet dogs.

One of the patients is called Sid and every episode he shouts Gordon Bennett! when something unexpected happens. I don’t really know what that means, but I like it.

Yesterday you asked me to write about my earliest memories, so I am doing that now.

Most of what I can remember is from the last two years. It started when I was getting the electric treatment. The electric treatment is very painful. Afterwards I was completely blank. For a long time I could only speak gibberish. I had to learn to talk again, as if I was a baby. I was told that my name was Jesus Hernandez and that I was very ill. I had a personal disorder that I can’t remember the name of. Sometimes I get memories from before I was in the hospital, but they do not match up with what people tell me. My memory now is very good. I remember everything.

Sometime I think I am like a jigsaw piece that has been put in the wrong place.

The first nice memory I have in this world is me lying in the hospital bed and watching the wind blow the curtain. It is daylight outside, which is why the curtains are drawn. The curtain is blue, like the ones in your office.

I remember you showing me cards with pictures on them. I had to guess what the cards were. I was frightened that I would make a mistake, but you said it was okay if I got some wrong.

For a while I had to stay in the room with the door locked. Then Magda started coming and sitting with me. Sometimes we would watch videos together, and that’s when I saw Oh No Barbarians! for the first time. It was the episode where Bonkers’ jet pack goes wrong and he bumps his head and loses his memory. I asked Magda if that is what happened to me and she said yes.

Bonkers is a robot.

Today, Doctor Sullivan asked me how I would feel if I could have my real memories back. I would be able to remember when I killed the two people. I say this is frightening because I can’t imagine ever wanting to hurt someone, not deliberately. One time I hurt Summer because we were dancing and I trod on her foot completely by accident and she cried and I felt awful.

That’s not true really. It’s what I thought you wanted to hear.

In truth, I kind of do remember killing them. I don’t remember them being a man and a woman, I remember them being priests of a horrible church. I remember believing that they deserved to die. That they had to die so that other people could live. But I also remember them already being dead when I found them. It’s very confusing.

Doctor Sullivan said this was a huge breakthrough and he thinks that it might be time we start a new medication regime.

I asked him if he had done the operation before. I knew I should ask this because that’s what they always ask when they’re going to do an operation in Shit Here Comes Matron. Doctor Poncely will say how they’re going to do something really complicated like an inverse quadruple bogeyotomy and the patient will say have you done this before and Doctor Poncely will say something in his silly voice like well I’ve seen a picture of it in a book.

All the patients in Shit Here Comes Matron die, but they usually die from a different reason than the one that made them go to the hospital. The quadruple bogeyotomy one got eaten by a mad giraffe that had escaped from a zoo. When they said giraffes don’t eat people Doctor Poncely said well it must have been really mad.

You can’t argue with stories.

Doctor Sullivan said it wasn’t an operation. They would just change the drugs they were giving me and over time I would stop thinking I was someone other than Jesus Hernandez. I don’t know why you are asking me now because you didn’t ask if I wanted the electric treatment which hurt so much.

I think part of the problem is that Doctor Sullivan has started drinking too much and he says things he isn’t supposed to.

Doctor Sullivan says that however many memories come back, there are always more deep down that can be uncovered. I asked him why I kept thinking I was a woman and he said that I was trying to escape my situation by creating an alternate identity and that fantasizing like this was a normal response to abnormal circumstances.

Gordon Bennett!

Oh No Barbarians! is my favorite cartoon. Right after I lost my memory I only liked cartoons because cartoons make the world easy to understand. Now I like more complicated stories like Up The Khazi and Shit Here Comes Matron. But I still like Oh No Barbarians!

Oh No Barbarians! is about a village that keeps getting attacked by barbarian horsemen. The barbarians want to kill all the villagers and turn them into a big pile of skulls. The village has an ancient magic spell that stops the barbarians from winning. Every episode the barbarians try a bunch of different ways to attack the village. Like they might build a huge catapult that is too strong so it throws them into outer space by accident. Or they might dig a tunnel but they end up in the wild west and they get scalped by Red Indians.

One time the barbarians heard that the villagers love horses, so they built a huge wooden horse and hid inside, but it turned out the villagers loved eating horses and they roasted it over a huge fire. All the barbarians inside died screaming and the villagers all laughed at them, even Bonkers.

However many barbarians get killed there are always more for the next episode. They are like memories. There are always more of them.

In the third season the villagers get visited by some little green floating aliens. The aliens decide to stay to help them against the barbarians. Summer says Oh No Barbarians! is based on a true story from history about the Mongol Empire. She says if they hadn’t conquered Europe then the world would be very different today. The alien part is probably made up though.

Magda made me sit down for a talk today. Doctor Sullivan is dead she said. He was very sad about his partner leaving him so he took some pills to kill himself.

Gordon Bennett!

I asked if Doctor Sullivan would go to heaven and Magda said yes he would, even though he killed himself. I asked if we would go to the funeral and Magda said that’s very sweet and we would have a memorial service here at the hospital to say goodbye.

I know about funerals from the Up The Khazi episode where Sergeant Katanga overhears that Private Askwith has gone to meet his maker. He organizes a funeral but at the end Askwith turns up still alive. He had gone to meet his bookmaker in Bombay.

A bookmaker is someone who makes books.

I am going to keep writing this, but I don’t know who will be reading it. Hello, whoever you are!

Doctor Sullivan’s funeral is today. All of the patients are there, even the ones who didn’t have him as their doctor. This is partly because everyone loved him and partly because attendance is mandatory. We each have a balloon. Magda is going to say some nice things about Doctor Sullivan and then we are all going to release our balloons to symbolically let go of him and send him to heaven.

Unfortunately I manage to spoil the whole event because I accidentally let go of my balloon before Magda finished talking. I let go because I suddenly remembered everything that happened before.

I am in a temple. It is circular, lined with beautiful blue and red rugs. It smells horrible in here. The rugs are blue but they are red because they are splashed with blood. I am a woman again. There are dead bodies here. They were horrible people who ate children. Here is the idol, the source of all misery and evil. We have to push it over and smash it, break it forever.

I touch it.

1988

Give us your fucking smokes, says Evans. Evans used to be a friend of mine but now he is a skinhead. He has a National Front logo in biro on the back of one hand, and a shittily-drawn gothic 88 on the other. The 88 means HH, or Heil Hitler. My useless so-called friends just stand there and watch to see what happens.

Fuck off Evans I thought you were straight edge, I say. He comes up to me so that his face is about an inch from my face. He is shorter than me but he is tightly wound. Like a rabid pit bull.

You better watch it. Your schooldays are numbered, Marshall, he says, and he waits for me to do something so I say your breath smells like shit mate you should consider flossing.

After school. Tonight. Don’t chicken out, you fucking wanker, he grunts.

Evans fucks off to go bother someone else, but he has to be quick. Boris will unlock the door in a few minutes. When it is raining they unlock it early but today it’s just a drizzle.

Even though he has left me alone this time, the fact that Evans is fucking around with me and no one is springing to my defense tells me that my position is lower in the social order than I had thought. For a while I had been generous with cigarettes, which I had hoped would make me popular, but instead it made me look pathetic and desperate. Cocks.

School is shit. The teachers are shit and the other kids are shit. Your friends are shit and your enemies are certainly shit. You don’t learn anything anyway. It’s an exercise in futility. If you read Tom Brown’s School Days then you realize it was shit back whenever that was too. It’s always been shit, all the way back to the paleolithic era when some asshole caveman who hated everyone invented school.

After assembly, which consists of hymns, prayers, the beak droning on about some religious thing, and a listing of boys in detention, we have double Biology. Oh, Evans got detention for farting in French yesterday, which is great because that means he can’t beat me up after school.

Now you might think that a literary type such as myself would have no interest in the sciences, but you, friend, would be wrong. I am something of a renaissance man.

You’re not a renaissance man, you’re a cocksucker, says Evans.

Thank you for finally joining us Marshall says Bender. Bender is Mr Benbow who teaches biology. Everyone thinks he is queer and he goes along with it. One time we were doing this thing about acetone and he took out a little handbag and minced around with it for a bit and then took out nail varnish and nail varnish remover from it. It was fucking hilarious.

Today we are doing genetic inheritance and Mendel’s peas, or something. It starts off with eye color and dominant and recessive genes and then we get onto evolution and selection and peacocks’ tails. Bender says that we like good looking people because that shows fitness for having babies. Gibson asks why males select females why don’t they just bang as many as they can. If anyone else had asked this they would be laughed at and told to shut up, but Gibson is the class golden child. He can do no wrong. Number one in the order. He isn’t even funny or tough or anything. He’s just the cool kid that everyone else tries to copy. He started writing in pencil instead of pen and everyone else started copying him, even some of the teachers.

Bender says he certainly doesn’t know why men like pretty girls, which makes everyone laugh.

After Biology we have morning break and then English Language with Mr McKenzie. It’s called English Language to keep it apart from English Literature. We all know how to speak English, thank you. At least, we all do except for Kumar, who is an ape from Borneo.

We are all sitting at our desks, waiting for Mr McKenzie, who is late as per usual. There is a poem on the board from the last class in here.

The leaves rise on smoky skies

Burnt and brown and tumbled down

And in someone else’s eyes

Summer was sent to find you

Evans finds some chalk and changes Summer to Bummer, which everyone finds hilarious.

Today, as McKenzie announced last week, we are starting debates. The whole point of debates is to piss off the maximum number of people, even the people who agree with you. The first part of this festival of misery is that you have to work in pairs, which is shit. I am paired with Gibson, which even worse, to the extent that it is a total and utter fucking disaster.

For a start, I am afraid to talk to him. I’m not one of the cool kids. I’m completely insignificant next to him. Then, even if we win it’s because he’s the cool kid, but if we lose then it’s my fault and my name is shit. Losing would mean a drop in the order, a turn of events that would be entirely unwelcome as it would give mongoloids like Evans free range to bully me.

Mind you, I’m aware that it’s entirely possible that my decision-making process is flawed. But what can I do about that? Shit I should be paying attention to McKenzie.

The motion is that people evolved intelligence because millions of years ago they were farmed by aliens from outer space who bred humans to have big brains because that’s the part they liked eating. McKenzie loves weird sci-fi stuff like this. We can’t do normal debate topics like whether we should have to wear school uniform or whether rich people should pay more tax. Everything has to be unconventional. Sometimes he just spends the whole lesson telling a story to the class, like the time he drove all the way across India, or the time he got arrested in America for cheating at chess.

We do a vote and the motion falls 14–10. You do a vote before so you can see how much people have changed their minds.

Mr McKenzie asks me to pick a number from one to ten. I say ten, and he says okay you’re pro. It doesn’t make any sense but it’s just like McKenzie to do something like that. Me and Gibson are against Wright and Kumar, which is hilarious because Wright is the biggest gaylord you could imagine and Kumar hates him. It’s funny just watching them stand next to each other.

We’re supposed to do research for homework and in our free time. I know Gibson is just going to cruise through the whole thing and not do any work. Sure enough at lunchtime Gibson fucks off to play football, no doubt destined to score 400 goals. I go to the library and look for something to help us win this debate.

The library is a one of the dens of the school. There are a few of them; the computer room, the library, the sixth form common room, the prefects’ office, and the music room. They’re places where if you’re a member then you can hang out there instead of being stuck outside in the playground with the common herd.

To be a member of the library den you have to be a librarian. And here is Prescott, one of the librarians, a sixth-former who is rumored to be a total shirt-lifting gaylord. Nevertheless, I don’t want to have to wank around with the card index thing so I ask him.

Where would I find a book about how aliens farmed human beings to have huge brains for them to eat? I say, as though that was a perfectly normal sort of inquiry. Are you joking says Prescott. You’re talking about something from The Gateway Of The Gods, obviously. I have no idea what he is talking about. The Gateway Of The Gods, by Erlich Van Dyke, have you never heard of it? Really? God Prescott is such a shit.

He takes me to one of the long bookshelves and looks for the book. He has a disturbing way of standing a bit too close to you. The Gateway Of The Gods is a dog-eared paperback. Thanks, Prescott. On the cover is a Mayan temple with a flying saucer floating above it. Erlich Van Dyke’s name runs across the top in green metallic type. It’s reference only, presumably because it keeps getting stolen. I sit down at the back of the library and start reading. I should have brought something to take notes.

The book is hard to read, partly because of the large clumsy drawings of cocks someone has rendered over some of the text, but also because Mr Van Dyke tends to write in sentences that are hundreds of words long. The book is riddled with ibids and qvs and footnotes and references. Some of the footnotes have their own footnotes.

The book is obviously a total and complete crock of shit, but that could play out in two different ways. Either it’s tinfoil-hat stupid and no-one will go along with it because it’s so cringe-inducing, or it’s so overwhelmingly ridiculous that people will like it because it says fuck you to being sensible and scientific and boring. It’s all a matter of presentation, as Mr McKenzie would say.

I keep reading. I quite like bonkers stuff like this. Finally I find the relevant part. It describes how aliens have interfered with humans throughout history, from breeding intelligence into them so they could eat our delicious brains, to becoming gods and making humans build pyramids and stonehenges and so on. This necessitates various loony sub-theories, including the belief that time is an illusion and all moments are actually simultaneous.

That could explain why it was suddenly two o’clock and time for PE. I hadn’t even had lunch. Shit. In the interest of science I decide to steal the book by the time-honored method of walking out with it in plain sight. It should be easy because the library is almost empty. I’ll bring it back when I’m done with it. I am just at the door when I hear Prescott say and where are you going with that, as though I’m stealing from him personally.

In situations like this there are good outcomes and bad ones. A good outcome will let me take the book, while a bad one will mean getting detention or a letter to my parents. It all depends on Prescott. He walks up to me and looks down his nose at the book. You’re in serious trouble Marshall. It is Marshall isn’t it. He moves closer and I back up until I’m up against the hot radiator by the door. His nose is almost touching mine. What shall we do with you, he says. The radiator is burning me. He smells of cigarettes and body odor. He kisses me, on the lips. I knee him in the groin as hard as I can, and when his head goes down I smash my elbow into his face, making a satisfying cracking noise. Or that is how I wish I had reacted. Instead I just pushed him away and run out.

Fucking benders.

The thing with Prescott is stuck in my head, like when you get chewing gum on your hands and you can’t wash them. Everything feels a bit dirty. I channel my discomfort into a particularly violent bit of rugby practice.

It is now pissing down so we are in the gym. One of the exercises we do is this one where you face a partner and you’re both lying down like you’re at the top of a push-up. So your body is supported by your arms. The game is to slap your opponent’s arms away. You have to wait until they are trying to hit you, so they only have one arm holding them up, and you slap that arm out. If you time it right they fall down smack onto the gym floor. You have to be really quick. The trick is to do dummies to make your opponent go at the wrong time. This is easy since I am paired with Kumar who, although large, has the reactions and strategic foresight of a sponge.

After PE everyone has sore red arms.

When I get home I go straight to the kitchen and devour a whole packet of chocolate digestives, then go to my room and devour the book. One chapter is about a mysterious crystal skull that grants eternal life. It turns up throughout history in different places. Everyone who tries to find it ends up dying in horrible ways. Awesome.

After a while I get bored and put on a game on the Amiga. I’m playing Mr Puddy III: Return To The Curse. It’s obviously a rip-off of Indiana Jones, but the main character is this fat little bloke who just walks around. You have to click on things to solve mysteries. I’m at the bit where Puddy has to open the sacred palace or temple or something. He has a monkey who runs and picks things up when you click on them. The chapters just jump from one story to another, which is kind of annoying.

From downstairs I can hear the theme music from Up The Khazi when mum says to switch it off, Jason come down for dinner. Mr Puddy is about to blow up a zeppelin.

I like to avoid my family as much as possible, but mum insists that we all eat dinner together. Dinner is always at seven o’clock so we don’t have an excuse, even if it’s Top of the Pops or England v Germany.

Tonight is mini chicken kievs and oven chips, which is fine. It’s the conversation at dinner that is the challenging part. You can’t just sit there and eat in silence, you have to talk about something that mum thinks brings the family together. Sometimes it’s awesome and sometimes it’s terrible. So we might talk about Kylie Minogue or about Gorbachev’s birthmark or about why men have nipples. Sometimes dad tells a story about the time when he ran a company in India.

My dad isn’t Indian. He just lived there.

One time he told us about this company that he worked for that was supposed to build a bridge. They got all of this money from the Indian government, and then they got a whole lot of money from the Americans. Then they got the Russians to pay for it too. Then they got money from the British to just run away with the money. What happened to the money? And dad just tapped the side of his nose. I said cocaine? and everyone laughed.

I should point out that dad and mum aren’t really matched. They’re an odd couple. Like, they love each other and everything, but mum is, well, normal, and dad is like a bit more working class. And by working class, I mean someone who avoids work as much as possible and thinks the whole point of life is to get away with things.

He’s a geezer, if you know what I mean.

Another story was about this time during the monsoon season. Everyone is bored out of their minds because it is raining all the time. So dad challenges this American to a riddle. He says which weighs more, an ounce of gold or an ounce of feathers. The American says they are the same. Dad bets him a thousand dollars that he is wrong, and the American takes the bet. Then dad says that gold is measured in troy ounces but feathers are weighed in imperial, and troy ounces are heavier. One thousand dollars please. Then the American takes out his gun and wants to shoot dad.

We’ve all had that feeling one time or another says mum.

Dad says what did you do at school today and I tell him I’ve been reading The Gateway Of The Gods. You mean the Erlich Van Dyke book he says, which is surprising. I say yes and mum does that thing where she just goes really quiet and stares at his eyes. Like he has started telling a dirty joke and she is daring him to continue.

Then he says you know he doesn’t exist, Erlich Van Dyke. It was all made up. I ask him how he knows that and dad says he knew the bloke what made it up, and he was nuttier than squirrel shit.

Mum hates it when dad swears, but she lets this one go.

You never can tell when your dad is bullshitting you, so it’s generally safer to assume that anything he says is a lie until proven otherwise. It’s a tough rule, but it’s there because of all the times he has abused our trust in the past. There are not special kinds of goats that have longer left legs than right legs so they can stand up straight on mountainsides. They are not changing to driving on the right but testing it with just buses and lorries first. The Netherlands is a real place and does exist. There are not two-pound notes that are invisible to gullible people. Gary Glitter is not a child molester. The Hilton hotel family did not change their name from Hitler. There is no such substance as updoc.

So I say yeah right dad, sure. And he says no, really. It was like this:

This was in the 1960s and the part of India I was in everyone was very poor so you could get away with anything, if you paid off the right people. You could literally get away with murder. Everyone who worked for the government you could bribe. It sounds mean to say things like that, but that’s how it was. So this meant that it was a very good place to run a slightly dodgy business, which is what we were.

Mum went mm hmmm and dad said well, whatever.

We were running what was officially an Import-Export company. Which means we were channeling all these ill-gotten gains in and out of the country. Nothing really dangerous like drugs or guns or what have you, but we’d ship luxury cars and helicopter parts and slot machines. All of it stolen of course. Very criminal enterprise your dad was engaged in. But it paid very well so we were living high on the hog, as they say. And as you know, as I’m sure I’ve told you many times, there was this bar called Sammy’s French Bar that we used to go to. Well I say go to. We virtually lived there. Home from home.

One day me and my boss are camped at the bar, as you do, and this bloke comes in. This bloke comes in and he looks terribly scared. He’s very thin and he has a black eye and it looks as though he hasn’t washed in weeks. His shirt’s all torn and it’s got blood on it. So of course we told him to get out of there. There’s no shortage of people like that in India. But then he shows us a coin. Hello, hello. It’s gold and very, very old. Must be worth a fortune. So this sort of alters our opinion of him a little bit. We sit him down and make sure he gets a good hot meal and he tells us that he has come back from the north. Afghanistan. Now he’s had a terrible time. So he tells us what happened:

1968

Is that you Cadbury, said Montfort. It’s so fucking dark here at night. Here. He gives me a cigarette. Pall Mall. How does he have any English fags left?

Interesting woman, the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, I say, to start a conversation. Speaks Urdu fluently. I will soon discover that she is also banging Montfort, and later I will learn that she was the one who initiated that, and is a bit of an insatiable cock-hound when it comes to pleasures of the flesh.

Yes, wonderful patron, says Montfort. Of course she just suddenly became interested in archaeology a few years ago, now she’s obsessed. Her husband the Duke couldn’t care less, poor man. But he’s got money coming out of his ears, so this is his way of humoring her.

Montfort is the sort of chap who’s always trying to impress people around him, so at that moment he decides to take out his service revolver and check his rounds. He looks out into the pitch black night and says can’t be too careful, you never know when some wog is going to come for a spot of grave robbing.

Montfort’ delusions of relevance again. No one gives a flying fuck about this hole in the middle of nowhere.

Strange all this backfilling I say, to change the subject. We’re on the site of the 1915 Puddy expedition. Back then no one bothered to backfill sites, you’d just leave them open to the elements. But Puddy had very carefully backfilled the whole site. Which was amazing when you think of how fucked up the Puddy expedition was.

It is early morning and Sullivan and I are taking advantage of the cooler hours to log artifacts. There is not much of interest. We found a couple of 1915 contaminations, a cartridge case and a broken pair of spectacles. Other than that there are some fragments of woven rugs which seem to have been preserved by an unusual dyeing process. Soon we’ll find some bone fragments that will suggest something more macabre.

She’s quite mad says Sullivan. He is talking about the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington. She went completely gaga, had to be locked up in a loony bin for a couple of months. They say it was the stress of getting married at such an early age, says Sullivan, excitedly.

Sullivan is a bit of a book type; I get the impression that this expedition is the most interesting thing that has ever happened to him. It’s true that the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, is a bit barmy, but she has been quite surprisingly helpful. I was expecting her to be one of those aristo dilettante types who doesn’t really contribute to a dig, but it turns out she really has some good insight. Seems to know exactly where to look.

Sullivan looks up. Oh here’s Michaels. I see you posted a new timeline. Yes, interesting. That’s very interesting going that far back, wouldn’t you say? Of course we’ll have a better idea once we get back home. Cataloging. Bit boring, I know, but that’s the key. You knew that, of course. Good chap. Carry on.

What’s that about the timeline, I ask. Well, it’s typical early Indus Valley of course, which is about 4000 BCE says Michaels. But in D-44 and D-45 we’re seeing much much older items. How much older? Hard to say, but I’m thinking ten to twenty thousand.

I don’t believe it! shouts Montfort. He’s holding the timeline. Preposterous. Nothing goes back that far. I mean, nothing that isn’t just a stain on a rock or a bloody dinosaur bone. Michaels, are you sure about this?

I think we found a museum of sorts says Michaels or perhaps an ancient ruin that they venerated. Hard to say really. Either way, this chamber is much older than the rest of the dig. On some of the woven fragments we’ve found blood stains and bone fragments suggesting some sort of ritual sacrifice. And you know of course that sacrifice is par for the course at a site like this. But strange they’d do it on their nice rug.

This is a really fucked up expedition.

The next morning everyone is a bit hungover from medicinal gin and tonics the night before. Only Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, is up, all bushy tailed and in charge, like a head girl on cocaine. She keeps barking at the wallahs in Urdu. Apparently they don’t quite get her dialect. Maybe she’s not as fluent as they say.

Everything is about D-44 and D-45. The boards are down and the wallahs are hauling away red dirt. You can see the perimeter of the enclosure, circular, maybe twenty foot radius. The lintels that we uncovered — dense hard granite, obviously quarried a great distance away — turn out to go a lot deeper than lintels. Three feet down now and they just keep on going.

Interesting markings on them. I asked Montfort how they relate to Indus script and he just laughed at me. It’s decoration nothing more, he said.

Indus script is common in sites all over this region, and one common symbol is a looping endless knot. It looks like an ’88’. It is all over this site.

Montfort has an oddball theory about Indus script, which has never been deciphered. He thinks it was a crude imitation of a real writing system someone had once seen. The problem with Montfort is he thinks the wogs start at Calais; anything we dig up outside England, with the exception of Roman sites, is the product of inferior cultures who never could amount to much on account of their not being English.

Why are we here digging up their culture instead of them being in England digging up ours, eh, he says over evening drinks and cigarettes.

At the center of the enclosure there’s an idol of some sort. We only found it by accident. One of the wallahs tripped over it. Nice chap, but very lazy, like all the wallahs. He went down like an Italian footballer in the penalty box. Probably holding out for a pay-off, Montfort says there’s not a mark on him. Luckily no damage to the idol, which is some sort of sculpture of an animal skull in a rather unusual metal alloy. Might be copper mixed with copper sulphate.

Nevertheless the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, tells us in no uncertain terms that no one is to touch the idol. She even translates for the wallahs. She sounds like a bossy matron I once encountered in hospital.

Today the malingering wallah woke up. He keeps mumbling something that sounds like Welsh. Or maybe Urdu. He looks terrified. His eyes keep darting around, as though he thinks he’s about to be attacked.

Late Sunday Sullivan touched the skull and now he is catatonic too. Montfort thinks he will pull through, just needs a few days rest. No one is to touch the skull. Michaels thinks it might be electrically charged by something, possibly radium. That would explain why they worshipped it. What’s the half life of radium? Should look that up when we get back. Must be bloody long.

People get injured on digs all the time, so we aren’t ready to up sticks just yet. Bit worrying though. Is this what happened to the Puddy expedition? Hard to know, considering all the scandal surrounding that fiasco, says Montfort. If we quit now it will be difficult to get any more dosh from the Duke of Wellington. Especially if he finds out about Montfort banging his wife.

Now they’re uncovering the skull inch by inch. Very very carefully. Little puffer brushes. Chuff, chuff, chuff. Michaels’ timeline is bonkers. He has the main site at 2800BC, the inner temple at a nutty 7500BC, and the skull at indeterminate but significantly older. The honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, seems to have a lot of influence on him. If I question it we’ll end up having another academic I-am-smarter-than-you bullshit match, which I do not have the candle for.

As the sun goes down a heated discussion is taking place in the tent of the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington.

I will not condone it. The days when we could do that are over says Montfort. We have reputations to think about. The honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, wants to smuggle the skull out of the country. Fuck the Afghans, she says. I am not going to be frustrated by some jumped-up little native. They’re just dirty foreigners, they don’t understand the significance.

I guess Montfort has had a sudden rush of ethics to the head. He skips from one argument to another like a mountain goat who went to law school. It would come out sooner or later. We’d be pariahs in our field. It would be unprofessional. The duchess is defiant. My husband will hear about this. He’ll hear about everything, about us, she shouts. What, your husband the notorious poo-pushing woofter, the biggest puff in the House of Lords, which is saying something, that husband? shouts Montfort in response.

No decision re: stealing the skull is made.

It’s funny how incurious most people are about the past. The Anglo-Saxons in eighth century England had no idea who had built the Roman ruins they found everywhere. Similarly the Romans had no idea who had built Stonehenge or the Pyramids. They thought they were relics from the age of myth, as though fiction and history was the same thing.

That’s the thing about history. There’s always an earlier period for people to not care about.

My first dig in England was on a neolithic barrow. It was complicated by Anglo-Saxon burials in the barrow. The Anglo-Saxons weren’t venerating the older site, they were overwriting it. Making the land their land. They only cared about history in as much as it gave them power. Thank God we’re better than that now.

The idol is now fully uncovered. It looks like a sculpture by Picasso. All cubic and angry looking. It is sitting on a granite plinth which has a channel cut in it, as though something, blood perhaps, would have been poured over the skull and collected beneath.

It’s looking more and more like a death cult, says Michaels.

The take-the-skull argument, which I had thought was just a proxy for a lovers’ tiff, has resurfaced with a vengeance. It has gotten so bad that Montfort and the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, are no longer sharing the same tent.

Cadbury you’ve been very quiet about this what do you think, asks the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington. Funny how she still has that aristo superior bearing even when she’s covered in sweat and red dirt. It’s something about the way she holds her head very still. Do I think we should illegally remove this artifact from the Kingdom of Afghanistan in direct contravention of the terms of our permit?

What’s in it for me I joke. Montfort is standing right there. He looks furious.

That night the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, comes to my tent. I thought we should talk, she says. When an aristo talks to you one-on-one it’s always very different to when there are lots of people around. She has a way of making you feel like a light has been shone on you and you’re the most important person in the universe. It must be a skill they teach in public school.

I’m going to take it back to England, she says. And you’re going to help me. I’ve told Montfort that he’s off the hook. It’s all my doing. I need you, William. This is the first time she or anyone on the expedition has used my Christian name; it has an electric effect. I’m not asking you to do this for nothing, she says. She has a leather wallet. The velvet lining contains rows and rows of carefully stitched down gold coins. Great Khans, thirteenth century. The bonkers bitch isn’t messing around.

Come now, she says, and despite all my reservations, I find myself following her into the night. Four of the wallahs are gingerly loading a suspiciously idol-sized crate onto one of the long-wheelbase Land Rovers.

I don’t believe it! How were you expecting to get away with this, shouts Montfort. He is in striped pajamas. He marches towards the Land Rover to take the keys, but stops when he realizes the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, is calmly aiming his own service revolver at him. The hammer is cocked and her finger is on the trigger.

The road south is awful. One lane all the way so we have to keep pulling to let cattle to go past. At least this is the dry season. Pakistan is full of military checkpoints. It isn’t like the west, where you can drive across a country without having some jumped-up sergeant yelling questions at you every twenty miles. Where are we going, show me your papers, are you married, is this your vehicle, what is in the crate. If the honorable Mrs Evans, Duchess of Wellington, has a destination in mind then it is something I will learn when we get there.

We are just outside Karachi when it all goes wrong.

8800 BC

Beloved Goddess Ash, please hear my prayer.

If I had a name, I would tell you my name. But no Goddess has ever called me, so like many boys here at the mill I am Noname, in my twelfth year.

We are the lowest of the low, Master Lastchance tells us, cheerfully. We are less valuable than the chickens or the hogs in the farms. Less important than the boys offered to the fields in the summer. We are nothing. We will work here until we die. We will never see the inside of the city, though we can see its imposing, eternal walls from here. The city is only for Goddesses and the lucky lucky men who serve them.

Every morning we rise with the sun and start work. I am on the shuttle, which is the most important job on the loom. It is hard when you start because you have to make sure the thread will not drop before the shuttle has crossed, but when you get used to it it is easy. Spinning is easy too. For those jobs you get to sit down. The rest of the work is harder; washing, dyeing, picking threads, loading and unloading, pumping water, making dyes, felting.

Backbreaking is what it is.

The threads of the loom are like life, says Master Lastchance. We are the weft, and the stories we hear are the warp. There are dark threads and light threads, just as there are Goddesses and men. The stories join us together.

They’re on their way says Crooked, my friend/enemy. There is smoke and dust on the horizon this morning. He is talking about the Vinazaka, who would like to come here and kill us all to build a mountain of skulls. Or that is what Master Lastchance would have us believe. It’s hard to know what is true, because Master Lastchance told us that we would never lie with a Goddess because a Goddess would never stoop to our level, but the Goddess Ash who owns this mill often laughs and says she would fuck any of us. Sometimes she takes a boy away with her, but they never return. She takes their tears, their seed, and their blood, in that order, says Master Lastchance.

You can’t trust anyone.

Beloved Goddess Ash, hear my prayer. The most important work we do is for the church. Everything for the church is in shades of blue. We weave special symbols into the cloth. The most important symbol is the one they call double infinity, looping hypnotically like mad snakes. I don’t know what it means, I just make sure the thread will not drop.

I started work when I was six years old. Master Lastchance told us all that if we misbehaved we would get a warning. If we misbehaved again, we would get another warning. If we misbehaved a third time we would be punished. Crooked laughed and said what a soft touch. Master Lastchance swung his stick and with a loud crack broke the child’s arm. That was your first warning, he said.

That is how Crooked became Crooked. His arm never mended properly. But at least he got a name.

At noon we stop for dinner. We always have the same thing; a thick soup from the pot. It has been cooking for a hundred years. Every day old Boras adds water and vegetables, and sometimes a sheep’s head. But a little bit of what you’re eating is a hundred years old.

It’s hard to imagine something being that old.

Crooked once told me that Boras can’t talk because he has no tongue. It was cut out because he referred to the Goddess Ash as she. You have to learn the rules. Then I found out that Boras can talk. He just likes to be quiet. No one likes Boras because sometimes at night he fucks the younger boys.

The only time I hear Boras talk is when he cuts my hair. He just says a little off the top, and then he shaves your head bald anyway. It’s his little joke.

Boras is named after a church story about an old man who fucks a goat and is turned into a living pile of goat shit.

In the afternoon Master Lastchance reads a story while we work. It’s quite unusual for a man to be able to read. It isn’t like the olden days when everyone could read. He used to work in the city reading to the little Goddesses, says Crooked, but one day he read a story that suggested a Goddess might be intolerant. Such things are forbidden and he was investigated and thrown out as a heretic. Now he works here at the mill in much reduced circumstances. He was lucky not to be executed.

Stories are dangerous things. Just because something is true it doesn’t mean it is right.

Some of the stories are religious, like how men babies come from the underworld and Goddess babies are brought by Lilith from the moon. The best stories are the ones that have a message that could be taken two ways. For instance, there’s the story about wicked Lady Cantilo, who received a wish from an angel. She wished that her hated sister, the Good Queen, would serve her. The angel grants the wish, and then, after an improbably long series of events and mistakes and confusions, the Good Queen hosts a banquet. The main dish she serves, of course, is wicked Lady Cantilo, roasted with an onion in her mouth.

Two meanings, you see.

Beloved Goddess, hear my prayer. We work until the sun goes down. The sun sets behind the city, with its walls and church and Goddesses. We work every day. If you get sick then Master Lastchance gives you a special medicine that helps your spirit go to the afterlife. There is a lime pit at the back of the mill for the body.

They’re going to come and cut our heads off, the Vinazaka, whispers Crooked in the dark. They’re going to burn everything and fuck us and kill us, worse than the way the summer sacrifices are killed. At least the sacrifices go to the afterlife to serve the house of their Goddess. We will burn in the underworld, punished for all time, wishing we could be back here at the mill.

In the morning there is more smoke on the horizon, and closer. Master Lastchance is absent at roll call and the workroom is awash with rumors; he has fled, the Goddess Ash has fled, the Vinazaka are coming, they’re going to burn the mill down with us inside, we are to fight the Vinazaka with wool forks. Eventually Master Lastchance returns. He has been speaking with the Goddess Ash. She is concerned about the Vinazaka, but not frightened. There will be wagons arriving shortly. We are to load the finished rugs and the loom, which will be taken to the city. Then the wagons will return and we will be taken inside the city walls, where we will be safe.

Imagine what the city will be like, I say to Crooked, as we cut the unfinished rug from the loom. Everything there is made of gold and ivory. There are libraries with books from before the fall, and artifacts from the days when Goddesses were made of metal. Crooked laughs at me. They won’t come back for us you dumb sack of shit, he says. They just said that so we wouldn’t run away before the wagons are loaded.

Of course we don’t expect this, says Master Lastchance from the tailgate of the last wagon, but if, uh, the Vinazaka should come before we return to take you to the city, it is important, very important, that you appear humble. His voice is cracking and his eyes are wet. You are good boys and the Vinazaka will not kill you if you bow down and promise to serve them. We will be back soon! Good luck!

Beloved Goddess Ash, hear my prayer. Now we are alone with just Boras. For the first time in our lives there is no work to do. We play outside, throwing stones across the dusty road. A few fights break out, some long-time grudges finally allowed to be resolved. Crooked points down the road towards the horizon. All I can see is a huge cloud of dust.

There are four horsemen. It is strange to see a man on a horse. We all prostrate ourselves as we would to a Goddess. They shout in their foreign tongue and Boras walks up to them. They want some information from him but Boras just stands with his head head up high. This makes it easier to slice off, as one of the Vinazaka demonstrates.

A little off the top, whispers Crooked.

After a few foreign words between the Vinazaka they ride off. They’re scouts, says Crooked. They are looking for resistance. As far as they are concerned, we don’t exist.

I’d never seen a sword before, so this is quite exciting, as well as terrifying. I realize that I have wet myself.

Boras’ body lies by the road. Some of the older boys take him to the lime pit out back, but a huge slick of blood remains on the dirt. Somehow we are hungry and we raid the pot. With no one to ration us, we empty it for the first time in a hundred years.

It is well past noon by the time the main body of the Vinazaka arrives. Thousands of horsemen canter past, then the huge catapults they will use to break the city walls, then the wagons carrying their supplies and homes and wives and children. The children are all mixed together, boys and girls alike, as though they were equal. For hours, the horde rolls past the abandoned mill, ignoring us. Finally, a Goddess appears. She is dressed like a Vinazaka, but she speaks our language. Your lives of slavery are over.

Now there’s a message that could be taken two ways.

It is forbidden for us to look directly at a Goddess, but she orders us to do so anyway. Some of the younger boys start crying because they think they will die if they do so. Her name is Dar Sharan and she is not a Goddess, says the Goddess. She doesn’t know if there are real Goddesses, no one can know for sure. But the ones we have been told are Goddesses are people, just the same as us. They have kept us slaves all these years, but that time is over. All of us, all the Free People, we all were once slaves, but we are free now and we will release each and every slave in the world.

The not-Goddess Dar Sharan points to the city. In the fading light we can see the horsemen and catapults neatly taking position. They have not begun their attack yet but already several thick plumes of smoke rise from the city. The old order is coming to an end. There, she says, in that city of vile wicked people, lies the source of all evil in the world.

We have come to end it, she says.