Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with his fellow losers at school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies—led by Drake—will pass him by in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more; something unforgivable; something unthinkable.
Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.
In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.
Paul Cornell plumbs the depths of magic and despair in Chalk, a brutal exploration of bullying in Margaret Thatcher’s England—available March 21st from Tor.com Publishing. Read an excerpt below, along with a note from Cornell about the personal and intense nature of the story.
From author Paul Cornell:
Chalk is a dark fantasy, and like my Shadow Police and Witches of Lychford series, it has its feet squarely in the real world. But it’s a one off. It’s a bit more serious. It’s a very personal book, but also, I hope, universal.
Were you bullied in school? How bad did it get? For the lead character in Chalk, Andrew Waggoner, it gets pretty extreme. So extreme that reality gets twisted, and things from outside the world are allowed back in.
Chalk is set in the 1980s, and features a ton of Eighties music. The heroine, Angie Boden, practices a form of magic powered by chart hits. But no matter which decade you grew up in, you’ll be able to fill in your own escape. The 1980s created some terrible things, which have again, in 2016, returned to haunt us.
This is a book about cycles of abuse. It doesn’t let Waggoner off the hook. It’s not a book about a martyr and how he triumphs in the end. It’s about how the bullied often become the bullies, and a desperate attempt to escape that.
For those of you who know me by my Doctor Who work, there’s also a visit to the Longleat Doctor Who Exhibition, at the centre of the world. Don’t say I never give you anything.
I hope you… well, ‘enjoy’ isn’t perhaps the word. I hope Chalk gets inside you. I hope it helps. I hope it makes you cry.
Thanks for listening, and, above all, thanks for reading.
Content Warning for graphic descriptions of violence and sexual assault.
We’re talking about the West Country of Great Britain, the farming country, below Wales and above Cornwall. Find the county of Wiltshire, then the town of Calne. Move your cursor east for about two miles along the A4 road. There’s Cherhill Downs. Find some images. On almost all of them will be the Cherhill White Horse. It’s one of many hill figures cut from the chalk soil on the uplands in this part of Britain. Some of them are relatively modern, some are ancient. The Uffington horse, further north, is the ancient one everyone knows. That one was cut, so the archaeologists tell us, by the nations of Iron Age people that lived in Wiltshire: the Durotriges or the Atrebates, as the Romans referred to them. They were rich. Their currency took the form of polished axe heads, never sharpened. They had vast resources, a large population and the commitment to build and maintain great monuments. The Uffington design is an indication, we’re told, that they caught and tamed wild horses. The archaeologists think it’s a model of what the tribes wanted to happen: this animal looks like it’s running past, but actually we’ve captured it on this hillside.
The Cherhill White Horse, on the other hand, although it’s beside an Iron Age hill fort, was cut in modern times. It looks domesticated. It turns the downs behind it from a forbidding fortress and place of suffering into the background of a painting. If the sunlight catches it at the right time of day, it’s got a twinkle in its eye.
It was cut out of the chalk in 1780 on the instructions of one Dr. Christopher Allsop, who lived in Calne. According to the history books, they called Allsop ‘the Mad Doctor’. They say he bellowed instructions to the men cutting the chalk from where he stood below the downs in the town of Cherhill. That’s why this horse, uniquely, is designed for perspective, for a modern audience who are used to the illusion of that. I think Allsop suspected something about those downs. Perhaps he decided to put something up there to overwrite it.
So the Cherhill White Horse isn’t old. But it’s said locally that if a woman sits on the eye, originally made of lemonade bottles, she’ll get pregnant. Nobody ever said, when I played on those downs as a child, with what, or who’s the father?
It’s like modern people know there’s something there. That whatever it is wants to make new life. That it wants to get out. They put the horse there to be that thing, rather than think about what’s been buried.
The hill fort on Cherhill Downs is now called Oldbury Castle. The archaeological records show that when they heard the Romans were coming, the Iron Age tribes built huge new fortifications. They thought they could resist. There must have come a point when, the alarm raised, the legions approaching, they left their villages and evacuated to their stronghold. They would at least go down fighting.
The Romans didn’t give them the chance. They had their decisive battles elsewhere. Then they built the road that’s now the A4 right past the downs. You can imagine the tribes sitting up there, besieged only by themselves, watching the Romans march past.
Up close, the walls of that old hill fort are like waves rolling through the ground. They’re huge. You’re hidden when you walk those ditches. The wind drops, you’re insulated. If you try to run up the other side, the pebbles of chalk will slide from under your shoes, and you’ll have to use your hands, your fingers jamming into the soil, for a long clamber, and you’ll have to stop when you get to the top, breathing hard, only to see another ditch and another rise in front of you.
When I was a small child, there was a copse up there where the sheep sheltered. I would sit there, on a fallen tree, to catch my breath. I watched the shadows of clouds pass over the big valleys below, that were made by glaciers. Or I would go and sit on the first step of the Lansdowne Monument, built in 1845 by Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, of the family who still own the stately home down the A4 past Calne. The monument is a big spike of white stone. Or I would go and lie in the bowl barrow. It’s a depression in the ground outside the bounds of the hill fort, in the form of a perfect circle. Before the First World War, everyone said it was where a keep had been built. Then it became where a zeppelin had dropped a bomb. Then it became where a German bomber had dropped a bomb.
But archaeologists tell us it’s actually a grave.
At the bottom of the bowl, under the soil, lies a person, curled up like they’re about to be born, on a bed of flint and charcoal, with a knife, a bow, wrist guards and a beaker full of beer. They say it’s a loving burial, proof of belief in an afterlife, but I have my doubts. Perhaps the archaeologists weren’t looking for the Threefold Death: the beating around the head; the wound in the throat; the suffocation. Perhaps they considered the stomach contents only in terms of food.
You’d still be able to see my family home from there. My parents still live in that house, a bungalow built by my dad. They still have my elderly Aunt Dar as their neighbour. Nearby there are a few scattered houses, a couple of villages, Calstone and Blackland, formed out of buildings that happen to lie along the same road. We got a church magazine that covered seven parishes, and they went way out into nowhere. The possibilities of the distant Salisbury Plain were always there when I was a child. I would hear thunder on a sunny day, and Mum would say that was the guns firing at the military bases up there, and I would be frightened at how loud they must be close up. Mum would hurry me inside, frightened too, as if the shells were about to start landing all around us.
How rich Mum and Dad were varied hugely when I was small. I went from private school to village school to private school. First I was the kid with the stupid accent, then I was the kid with the posh accent, then back again. That back-and-forth process, in some ways, explains everything. It’s like the British class system is a magnetic field, and moving a conductor through it produces current.
Every weekday morning, eight of us, kids from Calne and its surrounding villages, would stand on the town hall steps and wait for the minibus that took us to school in the village of Fasley. We’d be in uniform. Dad would drive me in on his way to work in Lyneham. He owned an insurance business that served the RAF base. He once had a laundry in the same building, then a betting shop. The insurance was the only thing that held on. The betting shop seems to have been a failed attempt to turn a passionate hobby into a career, to turn something that lost money into something that might possibly make some. Dad was always saying he’d made some small amount of money on the horses, or on Miss World, but he never mentioned all the times he must have lost.
In my first year at Fasley, when I was eleven, columns of workers would file into the Harris pie factory opposite as we were waiting on those steps. By my second year, the factory had closed down, and that was how it stayed, empty, argued over, six floors of windows.
The kids from John Bentley, the local comprehensive school—the state school, no uniforms—walked past us every morning. We’d get gobbed at, grabbed and slammed against the doors of the town hall, called at, get bits of food thrown at us.
Fasley itself wasn’t much of a village, there was nothing there really except the school. The building was an Edwardian mansion, with large windows at the front and gravel drives and playing fields. Imagine the sound of lots of kids’ feet walking on gravel, and then on polished wooden floors. Chemistry and Physics were in a wooden lab down a smelly corridor that must have once been the stables. Biology was out in what must have once been servants’ quarters, towards the woods. Maths was in what would have once been a guest bedroom. French and History were in the polished depths at the centre of all the stairs, near the staff room, the heart of the building, where the corridor smelt of cigarettes and soup. For PE, we went down the stairs into the cellars, all dust and moss. Bits of the school kept falling off. We were standing outside in lines at the end of break once when a gargoyle cracked from the gutter and fell. It was falling towards Mr. Rove, the headmaster, who was standing in front of us. There was one hopeful breath in from all of us as it dropped.
Mr. Rove was sure of everything. ‘This will be the year in which eighty-five per cent of you get an A grade at “O” Level.’ It didn’t sound like an order or a challenge, but like he already knew. But much of what he said turned out to be wide of the mark. ‘The only way to deal with children,’ he once told my dad at a parents’ evening, ‘is to be certain.’
Dad told me that the same evening. ‘Certain the school fees are going to go up,’ he said.
The gargoyle shattered a few feet away from Mr. Rove. He glanced at it, then turned back to us without mentioning it.
There were the woods out the back.
They were surrounded by a long stone wall, which we ran alongside when we were sent on cross-country runs. The woods were a sprint back to the bell at the end of break. The soil there was what got put into boxes and sifted on biology field trips. It was one of the two places where you smoked. If you did that. I didn’t.
In front of the school buildings there was an old oak, the big tree. It had large, low horizontal branches you could walk along, or sit along like girls did. The bark was polished smooth by bodies. There were initials and patterns carved so deep into the wood they must have been there for years, the tree growing around the gashes, kept there by finger after finger pressing in.
Every now and then, I’ll ask people if they have impossible memories of their childhoods. Sometimes someone will recall seeing fairies, or an imaginary friend they were sure they saw and heard. Nothing I’ve been told matches what I remember.
My name is Andrew Waggoner. At school, like most of us boys, I was known only by my surname.
But there was also someone else. He was called Waggoner too. Waggoner was someone else, but he also had my name and my face and my place in the world. Jeans, smoking, writing stuff on your bag, wearing your shirt out, wearing your collar up, wearing your tie thin—I didn’t do any of those things. Waggoner did. Waggoner also did some terrible things.
It’s going to be difficult, but I’m going to try to tell you something that’s true.
I should give you the full names of the five boys in Drake’s lot, in order:
Vincent Lang. He was the first one. Lang was this thin kid who was right down with kids like me in the pecking order. Lang was always sniggering. He made up mocking songs and sang them under his breath, all the time. He was always laughing, always trying desperately to get higher up.
Second was Stewart Selway. He had a big round cock that he always got out and sat around with in the changing rooms. He’d point at it and talk about it, and about porn films it sounded like he was making up.
Carl Blewly used to hang around with our lot in the first year, but then didn’t. He borrowed things and never returned them. He had glasses and a tight, puckered-up face, like he was always sucking on something sour.
Steven Rove was Mr. Rove the headmaster’s son, fat and with big hands. He shoved faces into the mud, and slapped people, and even scratched. He never used the fact that he was the headmaster’s son. In fact, whenever anyone said, that he got angry.
Then there’s Drake himself. The pivot about which everything turns.
Anthony Drake was his name, but only one person ever called him Anthony. I have met nobody like him since, and everyone I’ve met has been like him.
In our first year, he punched a boy in the windpipe. The boy nearly died, but didn’t tell. Neither did anyone who’d been watching. There was awe and tension around Drake and the boy after that. But Drake just kept going. The boy moved away when his parents did. Drake doing that never caught up with him. He kept on being who he was.
Drake was a football kid, so he hung around with Franklin and Goff and Sadiq, who didn’t have to fight much. But he also hung around with Lang, Selway, Blewly and Rove. Drake had sandy hair that flopped down in a kind of random bowl. He had freckles. He looked like Tom Fucking Sawyer. He carried a knife in the bottom of his satchel. No teacher ever saw it. It was something like a Swiss Army knife, but bigger, with lots of longer and more complicated options, including a serrated blade. It was a farm knife. He used it to chop the tobacco for his roll-ups.
There. I’ve mentioned the knife.
Drake talked about driving tractors and stunt bikes on his dad’s farm. He talked about going into the army. It felt like he was already in the army.
I talk very little about my memories of school, impossible or otherwise. People sometimes say that what they’ve heard about my past doesn’t make sense, because I remember things in strange orders, or that I’ve made up funny or defensive stories that have embedded themselves in my head so deeply that I think maybe they are the memories now.
My life is full of continuity errors. I hear stories about people with ‘reclaimed memories’, usually of child abuse, and I should sympathise with them, should believe them, but I don’t. I remember everything, I just tell lies about it. I feel perhaps they’re doing the same. I am hard on people, though. Sometimes frighteningly hard.
Still, mine is not a story about child abuse.
Calne didn’t have much to it apart from the factory. Dad was chairman of the Conservative Club. Mum and Dad went down there to play snooker and skittles. They won a lot of trophies.
One Christmas when I was little, Dad got me a junior snooker set. It was a small green plastic table with two small wooden cues. I walked around it with my cue held down on top of my foot, so I had to walk stiff legged. I liked twirling the cue from hand to hand. Dad tried to get me to play properly.
One night he took me down to the Club and let me into the big room at the back where there was an enormous snooker table. He told me that he’d hired the room for the whole night, which had cost three pounds—six weeks’ pocket money. So we were going to have as much fun as we could. He went to get me a Britvic and a packet of Salt and Shake. There were a couple of old men there. They offered me a sup of their beer. I smiled at them. I got the chalk and chalked my cue by spinning the cue into the chalk.
I was just tall enough to be able to lean over the table. I was worried about splitting the felt with my first shot. Dad came back in with the drinks, shared a joke with the old men, asking if they’d got me drunk yet. ‘Oh, ah,’ one of them said, ‘he’s drunk like a trooper. Drunk like a trooper!’
I grinned at Dad. He came over and told me, his voice low, that the two old boys were on the Committee. Now I had to play properly. He was going to teach me. How he looked in front of the old boys was up to me. He showed me how to set up the table, the right way to arrange the balls into the triangle. He broke, and sent the white ball straight into one of the pockets. He winked at the two old lads. ‘Two shots to you!’
I took my two shots, trying to remember how I was supposed to rest the cue on the backs of my knuckles. I ended up with a strange grasp, the cue hooked under one of my fingers. I liked the way that looked. Dad took my hand and hooked it out, put my hand on the table and replaced it several times, until he realised that the old lads had started to look at nothing but that. ‘Do he want any help?’ one of them asked. Dad said no, I’d get it. I was doing well at school, Fasley Grange actually, it looked like I was going to win the bursary this year, I was a quick learner.
‘Takes after his dad,’ said the other.
I made my hand into the right shape. I took my two shots. I missed every ball with the first one. Dad insisted I nicked a red. Then I sent the ball off the table. He only took one shot in return.
The old lads never left. It took three hours, all the time we had, but Dad was finally able to let me win. On the way home, I asked him if we had to go back next week. He was silent for a bit. Then he said, ‘I’ll make it up to you lad. I’ll make it up to you.’ The next day he brought home a snooker trivia board game. It looked very expensive. We played it once.
But there was something about the cues, or sticks, as I called them, that I really liked. I took my two junior snooker cues with me when I went up onto the downs. I twirled them, I could spin them around my fingers to get them to go in a circle, for two or three spins at least. Like a drum major. Majorette, Dad said. And so I said that too, until he stopped me and said major. They were my swords. I used them to whack down the nettles. Linus carried a security blanket in the Charlie Brown cartoons, and whenever she saw me reading one of those books, Mum would say that the sticks were my security blanket. She said it like it was a great shame, only half a joke.
The man with two sticks. That was the comic strip I would have created about myself back then. That was how I saw myself. I said it to Mum, sometimes. I never felt able to say ‘boy’.
But then I realised that there was another man with two sticks. I found him in a book.
When I was small, I’d often get a shock when I turned the pages of a book. I read books I shouldn’t have. I scared myself with what I saw. This time I was more shocked than ever. Because the picture was of me. The picture was of a chalk hill figure, the Long Man of Wilmington. He still stands on the side of Windover Hill in Sussex, surrounded by long barrows. He’s a sign, a model of something. But only I know of what. Or I think I do. He’s an outline of a human figure. He has no face or genitals, but the outline looks male. He has his arms outstretched. In both of them he holds a stick as tall as he is.
That’s why I went to the annual Fasley Grange School fancy dress Halloween disco in 1982 in exactly what I normally wore, and I carried my two sticks. I went dressed as myself, but was able to say that it was a costume. I was the Long Man.
You can see why I was such a target. Fucking little shit of a boy, pointing at himself. Didn’t have brains enough to hide. What kind of costume requires an explanation?
The Halloween disco was on a Sunday night that year, with the half-term break having started on the Saturday, so it was one of those awkward going-back-into-school things. It was held, as always, in a room under the school, in what looked like it was originally a wine cellar. It was supposed to be rented out for corporate parties that we never saw, and might have been a pipe dream of Mr. Rove’s. It was accessed by a narrow flight of steps. A disco had been set up with Mr. Rushden as DJ. Mr. Rushden was quite young, and looked and spoke like the pop star B. A. Robertson. He had very hairy legs. We knew this because he was the PE teacher. He was also the Religious Education teacher. His RE lessons were full of stories about sport. ‘Just because I told Goff off in class before the match,’ he would say, on the subject of forgiveness, ‘doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pass the ball to him on the pitch, yeah?’
The sport metaphors meant I never had any idea what he was trying to say.
That night, he had big black and silver decks and two boxes of discs, mostly seven-inch singles. There was a dance floor of polished wood. There was a nonalcoholic bar, with a red cloth hung over the optics of the bottles of spirits and the beer barrel taps covered in little black smocks of felt. They looked ragged, like they’d been cut out at the last moment. A few of the teachers stood awkwardly around the room, dressed as monsters. Mr. Coxwell was there, looking round as if swearing under his breath, not dressed as anything other than himself. Mr. Coxwell was the deputy head. He taught French, and he was always angry. Whenever he entered a room, you felt the tension. He once told a joke in French, and then bellowed when somebody laughed. Because, he said, they couldn’t possibly be laughing at the joke itself. ‘This isn’t a good enough school for that,’ he’d said.
So here’s the big memory I can hang everything else on, the break in the horror that lets me think about what happened that Halloween: Angie Boden in her witch outfit, a green ra-ra dress with black tights and a tiny witch hat, dancing to Culture Club. She had big black eye shadow on.
Back then, Angie Boden and I had never talked. There would have been laughter at me even approaching her.
Angie and her only friends, Netty, Jenn and Louise, wrote lyrics in Biro under their shirt collars. They had a different kind of shoes, they put badges on their lapels, but they were still good girls who did well in class. They were not popular with other girls. Even boys knew that. I once saw a girl slap Angie so hard she drew blood. It had been for saying the music the girl liked was old-fashioned; that’s what the boys said afterwards. The boys had all laughed at that fight, trying to be above what girls did, scared by how big it felt.
Angie had a ferociously deep Wiltshire accent. I can hear it now, saying the lyrics to ‘Cruel Summer’, slowly and carefully. She had a face like she should be posh. Not as much as some of the girls, the ones who had braided hair right down their backs. Just posh enough so the accent was a shock. Angie had a short, flicked-over haircut, very Human League. It suited the frown she usually wore. That night, she was dancing like she always did, her hands balled into fists, leaping inappropriately up and down to ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’, which was Number One at the time, her three friends beside her. The other girls who were dancing did it away from them, and were swaying tastefully. I’d only see makeup on these girls at the Halloween and Christmas discos, and then it’d look like part of their costumes, with big pink blusher and huge darkness around their eyes.
The only one of my lot to come along was Mark Ford, known as Fiesta. He was dressed as some sort of devil. He had his face painted red, but he was wearing a white jacket with the sleeves pushed up and a white vest underneath. Fiesta had that harmless nickname: Ford Fiesta. Teachers started to use it, because it was harmless, and then his parents became Mr. and Mrs. Fiesta, even to their faces. I saw once—at an assembly, from a wince when Mr. Rove made exactly that mistake, and of course didn’t correct himself—that Fiesta hated that nickname. But he never asked us not to use it, because that would mean we’d use it more.
Fiesta asked what I’d come as, and I explained. ‘’Cos you look just like you would at home.’
‘You don’t know what I look like at home.’
‘Yes I do. You look like that.’
Mrs. Parkin came over and said she didn’t think I should keep the sticks, and that I’d look ridiculous dancing with them and might have somebody’s eye out. She put them in the cloakroom. So now I was a man without a costume at a costume party. That’s when dangerous things from two universes took an interest in me.
Mum had said she didn’t think it was much of a costume. ‘They’ll all laugh at you. I don’t know how you’ll ever get any friends. You’ll come home a laughing stock, mark my words.’ But in the end, she went along with it.
When we were in town, and Dad was trying to park somewhere, Mum would cry out, ‘There’s a policeman!’ Once, when some medicine had tasted of aniseed, Mum had put the spoon in my mouth, and I’d thrown up. Mum had grabbed my lips and held them together, desperately trying to get me to keep it down. Then she’d burst into tears and run out of the room. I think that’s my earliest memory.
This time, maybe I should have listened to her.
Drake had come as a werewolf. He had big sideburns glued to his face, in a deliberately half-hearted way, and was wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He hadn’t any fangs. He was hanging around with Lang and Rove and Selway and Blewly at the bar. He’d got pissed before he came here, and they were pretending they were too.
Drake had been looking at me since I’d had my sticks taken away, pointing at me and then laughing to his mates. Angie looked in Drake’s direction and then looked away. I looked at her, and then looked away myself. Drake saw that. He came straight for me. The others followed him. Drake could see teachers, so he stopped just before he got to me. ‘Cunt,’ he said quietly. ‘Little cunt. We’re going to hang around with you. We want to come to your house and fuck your mum. Shouldn’t mind that. You do it all the time. Has she got a big, furry muff, then? Have you seen it? Do you like the taste of it?’ I was saying no, over and over. ‘We’ve got something to show you,’ he said. ‘After. Fucknor Waggoner. Fucknor Waggoner. You’ll be getting home to fuck your mum. That’s what you like. You love her. You are her.’ Then they went back to the bar.
I tried to hang around with Fiesta, but he wasn’t interested. He danced by himself, at the side of where all the girls were dancing with each other, doing his Michael Jackson bit. He didn’t seem to mind the boys laughing at him. I think the Fiesta family were so rich that when Fiesta went home, he got told that in three years he’d be driving a sports car, and he thought, okay, I’ll just try and get through school without getting hit too much.
Laurie Coxwell was there. She was Mr. Coxwell’s daughter. She was short, and had curly hair, like her mum, who taught us Maths. She’d played the flute at an assembly once. I’d clapped without being told to, and everyone had laughed at me. But afterwards, when we were passing in a corridor and there was nobody else in sight, she’d stopped and said thank you. She’d come tonight as a cat girl, with whiskers and a tail. ‘Hi,’ she said. Terrifyingly.
‘Are you going to be dancing later?’
‘I’m waiting for the music to be good.’
‘Don’t you like Culture Club?’
I didn’t know what to say. I knew what the answer would have been for Drake, but for a girl? I spent too long trying to guess the answer. Finally, she took her drink and smiled awkwardly at me and walked off back to her mum.
Angie’s friend Louise Callidge put her arms up over her head to dance to Modern Romance’s ‘Best Years of Our Lives’. Louise, unlike Angie, had the accent to match her looks. She had hair that hung right down her back. It feels strange to be talking about her so offhandedly here. Right now, she’s just a normal kid. Well, as normal as any of Angie’s lot were. She’d brought a tray of cakes she’d made to the disco, like that was a thing you did, but girls were always doing things that boys didn’t think you could do, and Angie’s lot did that even more. The cakes sat there for the whole time I was there with nobody eating them until Angie’s lot ate them all. Louise would look around as she danced, her gaze sweeping over the other girls, then she’d stop, examine something, judge it, away again. She danced to show off, bouncing her hips off Angie and Netty and Jenn. They looked like they should be really enjoying dancing, but did it with a seriousness that suggested this was hard work, that they were trying to achieve something.
I danced, the first time I’d done that with people watching. I leapt in and started jerking around, trying not to dance too much or too little, held within my tiny box of what was allowed. But dancing. Lots of laughter, but I felt like I was sticking it to them. I was a weird and normal kid then. I saw Drake watching. No expression. I think he’d already decided what was going to happen to me.
Around ten o’clock, kids started to leave to get to the driveway and find their parents getting out of their cars. I knew my dad was going to park his rusty white Renault Fourteen right up against the front of the school, and march in early in his cigar-smelling suit with chalk on the cuffs to have a quick word with a teacher.
We only had so much money. Just enough. That’s why, for my parents, my school life was about me winning the bursary for my final year. The bursary was for the cleverest kids, the top boy and girl of each year. I’d been second last year. Mum and Dad kept mentioning the bursary to me, one and then the other, like they’d told each other they weren’t going to say anything, but neither could keep to that agreement. The bursary was based on end-of-year exams. So I heard the words ‘school fees’ all the time at home. Once, on a caravan holiday, Mum and Dad yelled at each other for two days about school fees. The John Bentley comprehensive was a terrible vision for all of us, the pit they were working hard to keep me from falling into, where those kids that spat at us on the town hall steps came from. Sometimes I asked, and Mum and Dad would laugh and say no, no, I shouldn’t worry; they’d do anything to keep me out of John Bentley. If Mr. Rove had had any kind of selection procedure based on class, Mum and Dad wouldn’t have got past the interview. All the really posh kids at Fasley always looked like they’d been tricked. Upper-middle-class kids like Fiesta seemed marooned in the wrong place. Some of the houses these kids came from would have made better private schools than Fasley did.
I went to get my coat and sticks from Mrs. Parkin at the door. I was sweaty and worked up and thinking I’d done something really big, that I’d taken the test, and had sort of half failed and half passed it, but that tonight I was doing stuff for the girls watching, and not the boys, and that was weird, but great. That moment: my hand closing on the hood of my blue coat that could zip up to a tiny hole way in front of my face, and that had an orange lining.
That’s our last sight of the normal and weird kid.
Drake’s hands closed on me as I took the coat. ‘Come on, mate! You’re such an ace dancer!’ Drake put one arm round my shoulder and dug his fingers in. The other four were by his side, around me, cutting me off from Mrs. Parkin, who was looking for the next coat anyway. I didn’t get my sticks. I could see them in the corner of the cloakroom, but I couldn’t ask for them with Drake there. That was the last time I saw them.
So, suddenly we hit the cold night, and I was looking round for my dad, hoping and not hoping he’d be there. There was no sign of him. Parents and kids thronged around us for a moment. That parent smell. Big coats and jewellery. Mothers slipping coats around their daughters’ shoulders on the way to big cars. Where were Lang’s parents? Why didn’t Mr. Rove see his son going out and call him back?
‘I have to wait for my dad!’ I was saying, trying to get out of their grasp.
‘What’s that? You’re waiting to fuck your mum?’ They were guiding me quickly around the back of the building. I could have yelled, but it would have been a scream. That would have made me a victim again, so soon after I’d started to get free. We went straight off the gravel into the bushes and from there into the woods.
They kept me moving with shoves. They couldn’t have long. They’d have to be back there in minutes. That wouldn’t stop Drake, no rules for him. He was walking along quickly, knowing exactly where he was going, knowing his way through the trees. We entered a clearing. They pushed me up against a tree, so hard that the knots of wood punched my back. ‘Right,’ said Drake, and the others began to wrestle with me for the belt to my trousers.
I started to yell. To scream. I was attempting to hold onto my belt as Lang grabbed my hands and Rove tried to undo the buckle, while the other two pulled my feet off the ground, and took off my shoes, throwing them aside. It felt terrible to have them take off my shoes. Rove was fumbling, his fingers slipping. I wrenched myself aside. Selway hit me hard across the jaw. I’d been hit a lot, but never so hard. The back of my skull bounced off the tree. My head rang. The world reeled. Several different pictures of the wood and the trees split off in my vision and collided again. I started to sob. They knew what they were after; they were going beyond anything they’d done to me before. All five cooperated in the task. There were just trees in all directions, darkness with lights beyond, help far off, all of us lit by the moon that was a night off full.
‘I’ll tell!’ I shouted. ‘You can’t stop me telling! You can’t stop me telling!’
‘You tell and we’ll fucking kill you,’ muttered Selway.
Drake took a step back, took his knife out, flicked the switch and pulled out the very long blade with the serrated edge. ‘Get his cock out,’ he said.
‘I don’t want to touch it,’ said Rove. ‘Wait a sec.’ He fumbled in his coat pockets and pulled out big, fur-lined driving gloves, which he struggled to put on.
My jaw had started to ache so hard I was having trouble speaking. ‘Please,’ I said. ‘Please don’t.’
Lang held me hard against the tree, his breath wet in my face. ‘Shut up. This is so you can’t fuck your mum any more. It’s disguuuuuuuusting.’
I thrashed and struggled, but then Selway slammed his body into my lower half, and I was pinned against the tree. Blewly got my belt loose, tried it round his own waist, then threw it away. He pulled the top of my trousers down. He sniggered at my blue Y-Fronts. He looked at the others, not knowing what to do now. He couldn’t see any way he could touch me any further.
‘Give it here.’ Drake stepped forward.
He took the front of my underwear in his hand and pulled it down. He jerked the material about until my tiny dick and balls fell out. I could smell myself. They laughed. There was a fearful smile on Rove’s face, a kind of awe at what Drake was doing.
Drake took me in his fist. ‘Right, let’s get rid of these.’
I screamed at the top of my voice. It carried as far as it could.
He tugged suddenly on my dick, pulling the skin forward.
Selway and Blewly had to hold my arms behind my back. I was thrashing and flailing. Drake raised the knife high over his head.
This is when he lets go, and they all run away laughing, I thought. That in itself was going to be so bad.
He chopped the knife down. There was a moment of intense pain. Like an injection.
I looked down. A tiny cord, a vein you might find in an egg, spitting blood. A flapping of meat that looked like nothing that could ever be part of me. A deep red gouge and strange colours inside it. I had been opened up. Drake held up a thin taper of flesh in his hand. ‘You’re a Jewboy now,’ he said. He flicked it away with his finger. It landed amongst the mulch on the ground. He closed the knife and turned and started to walk away.
Selway and Blewly let go of me. They were looking at me carefully now. I was a thing of wonder. Lang reached down to try and pull up my underpants, but Rove stopped him.
‘You’re going to be all right,’ said Selway. ‘Aren’t you?’
I actually nodded.
They walked off, looking back over their shoulders, following Drake. After a moment, all of them ran. They were running scared, but also they were running like they’d just scored a goal. I was that goal.
For a while, I stood there. I couldn’t touch myself. Blood was running down my legs. Dribbling from the end of my dick. The shape of me was different. They’d made me different. I could feel a bunch of things flapping against my thigh, where there had been one thing.
That’s still what it’s like. It looks painful even now, and sometimes it is, when I piss or when I come. I’m suddenly panting, injured, freezing, and a long way away.
I’ve told everyone with whom I’ve been intimate, had to tell them way before we got to that, that I had an accident involving farm machinery.
I made myself step out from the tree. I nearly fell. I wanted to vomit, but I held it in. I fell to the ground and felt around until I found my belt and used the tree to get to my feet again. Everything felt slow and thumping. Everything was open. I was afraid of the mud getting into the blood, of becoming infected.
Over the years, I’ve found several mentions of infection in my reading on this subject. Thank God I was inoculated against tetanus. My urethra was almost certainly narrowed. Which means I was lucky. If that process had gone slightly further, I would have begun to retain urine, which would have resulted in what is possibly the single most painful form of death. Perhaps I would have been made to see a doctor before it got that far. I doubt it. I think I would have fooled my parents, not told to the point where I fell into a coma. I’ve never shown it to a doctor. I’ve never had to. The average lad’s doses of the clap are far less likely when you’re someone whose cock requires an explanation.
In the days when circumcision was a medical matter, before it was decided that nonretractibility of the prepuce was something that would sort itself out, a Plastibell under the foreskin with a piece of string on the outside, or something called a Gomco clamp, was used to gently separate the skin over a few days. “A neat cosmetic result,” I’ve read. Rabbis skilled in such matters, with sutures at hand, also leave something that looks tidy. My cock, however, does not look like anything cosmetic or traditional has happened to it. Unerect, it looks like a ragged lump, the foreskin parted down one side like a tear, red around the edges like lips, proceeding to the base as a glimpse into layers that were not meant to be glimpsed. Erect, it looks frighteningly exposed, painful, infected. It can’t get to the angle it’s supposed to. It’s awkwardly skewed to one side.
Growing up, I saw penises in porn, clutched admiringly in the gentle hand of Shanine Linton. They looked comfortingly simple. That’s not me.
In my life, whenever I’ve become close to a woman, there he is. There he is at every urinal. There he is. Drake. The closeness of a doctor or a mother. The intimacy. He made me.
I pulled up my Y-Fronts, feeling the material press against the wound. I got into my trousers, and, after fumbling with it for a while, I managed to fasten my belt.
The pain was getting worse. Walking was difficult. I did it slowly, with my legs as open as they could go. I hadn’t pissed myself. It would have splashed over his hands. I was glad I hadn’t done that. He would look at me and laugh next time I saw him, after half-term. All five of them would. They would make Jew jokes. They might tell other kids what they meant.
I moved in a circle. I couldn’t find it. It was lost amongst the humus somewhere. Insects were already crawling in the blood. It was mine. It was mine. A doctor might need it to sew it back on…. Nobody was ever going to sew it back on. I got my hands and knees covered in mud. I couldn’t find it.
Finally, I started heading back to the school. It took me a long time. Dad’s car was the last one waiting in the drive. He was standing beside it, talking to Mr. Rove. I would not let it out. I would not let Dad know how his money was being spent. I would not make his attempt to push me up above him on his shoulders stupid. I had a story. To protect Dad. To protect the five of them. No, to protect Dad. No, to save me from John Bentley.
Between my legs was sticky with blood. So I had carefully smudged it on the pullover and the rest of the trousers, clenching my teeth at every downwards stretch. My muscles felt cold, the clench reaching up to my mouth, making my jaw hurt even more. The white lights along the drive would show it all. No getting straight into the car.
Dad and Mr. Rove turned and stared at me as I came round the corner of the house. I started to tell them how none of this was real.
Excerpted from Chalk copyright © 2017 by Paul Cornell