Mark E. Smith biographer and author Austin Collings premieres new story
Image -'Response to How To Wash A Child's Brain' By Low Coney (2015). Analogue collge from found imagery.
Austin Collings was born in Radcliffe, North Manchester in 1980: the year of the monkey. He co-authored Renegade: The Lives & Tales of Mark E Smith and has written for The Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, New Statesman and Sight & Sound. His collection of prose The Myth of Brilliant Summers was published in 2014 by Pariah Press.
Here, we premiere an extract from Austin's fortchoming story 'How To Wash A Child's Brain'.
How To Wash A Child’s Brain.
I found Stuart hanging at dinnertime.
I left the clatter of the canteen and ran to the library, running from the rain.
He’d used his school tie, wrapped it tight to the library staircase above the boys toilets. The stairs smelled of mud. The sound of rain was devastating. The window half-way up the stairs was near-black with weather. A midnight dinner-time.
He swayed slowly from above. I saw his feet first. Scuffed shoes that dangled big in front of my eyes. One sole, peeling away, flapping from the toe like a frogs mouth or a caesarean. Laces tied tight. My first thought was – dummy, doll or a very life-like very well put together Guy Fawkes – but who creates a Guy Fawkes in February?
He was a patchwork of sad teenage details. White towelling socks and a slice of pale lower leg. Beltless pants that may never have been black in the first place. Thin short-sleeved shirt that exposed teenage nipples. The tie, now a severe line around his neck.
His face usually looked like it had been drawn by a right handed person using their left – tiny compressed eyes nowhere near the right size, off-centre nose and a mouth that spat and dribbled whenever he spoke - but today he looked like he’d been drawn with broken fingers – his eyes were a sunken scribble and his complexion, normally lasagne-like, had lost all living colour and that unmistakable mouth of his hung stiffly open, revealing a dead tongue and bad teeth.
He radiated despair.
I couldn’t stand the lad but I couldn’t leave him there hanging. Recently we’d been making his life a misery. He’d been given the role of assitant librarian. We called him Robo-librarian, repeating it until he was riled, until he flipped his lid.
Seeing him seethe – which he did often and venomously – was a highlight of our week and one of the best feelings I’d ever experienced up until then. I would be lifted by a magnificent blast of excitement that was the complete opposite sensation of a downward lift, oribited to a place of orgasm. A wet dream with eyes open. It was the same sensational feeling when I shoplifted cd’s and books from the town centre at weekends. The danger-thrill.
He was no librarian. He’d gone overboard with his dinner-time power. He took it all too seriously, treated it like an actual job. His aura of officialdom got on our wick. The Robo-librarian name/piss-take fit perfectly. He rightly singled me out as the one who’d coined it.
He threatened to come in one day and shoot me with his dad’s gun. He told me this – howling the words and then clenching his teeth and widening his eyes – down a corridor before first lesson one day. Him at one end; me at the other. He had a wild energy about him that made this threat not inconceivable. I didn’t move or reply. We stood like that for epic seconds.
He then thumped a window with the base of his clenched fist. Mrs Lyons appeared from her classroom and asked him what on earth he was playing at?
“Stuart – I won’t ask you again.” She said.
Breathing in hard, raising the upper trunk of his chest, he roared: “I haven’t done anything!”
Two girls appeared behind Mrs Lyons, stifling laughter, unconvincingly. She told them to get back in, to return to their seats immediately. Ignoring her, they stared at Stuart, at his mad-red face. He looked as if he was being boiled from the inside, as if he was a human kettle. His angry face was a gift to the girls. Their excitement at seeing him so distressed was uncontainable.
He couldn’t hold his position. We were all against him in that corridor. The whole school may have been all against him. Breathing loudly, he turned away to study – or possibly even disappear into the temopral sanctuary of - the contents of the window at his side: the bald grass, the feeble witchy tree that grew no leaves.
“What did I just say to you two?” Mrs Lyons said. “Get-back-in.”
With mock reluctance they returned to their seats and Mrs Lyons shut the old door behind them.
“Stuart, you’re coming with me.”
He was in the pre-cry stage. The quivering chin. The globe in the throat. Tears before dinner-time, reflected back at him through the window that he wanted to escape into.
“To Mrs Lewis’ office Stuart. This minute. Now.”
She led him up the corridor to where Mrs Lewis – the Headmistresses’ – would tell him to sit down in the chair opposite herself, and explain himself.
Kids looked out of class windows, laughing hysterically; their ‘dickhead’ cries muffled by the glass.
I couldn’t wait to tell my mates what had just happened.
Amazed and afraid, locked in a spell of terror, we lay him down at the top of the stairs: me and Mr Hilton, the art teacher/main library man. When I’d rushed into the library and told him about Stuart, he was sitting alone at his desk, fraction of a white sandwich locked in his lips, hands struggling to unfold a concertinaed copy of a newspaper. This was a brief moment of relief for him.
The sandwich and paper were dropped quickly, coins went audibly crazy in his pants as he ran, barging first through the actual library door and then the ENTRANCE to the library door.
He held Stuart from the midway point of the stairs as I untied the knot through the railings. We didn’t discuss this plan. It just made obvious sense.
All was silent - and yet not: kids could be heard through the bricks, familiar sounds and names, and rain the size, shape and weight of hammers added to the dinner-time din.
“Come on Stuart. Come on lad.”
It was a voice that was trying it’s best to sound calm, to calm itself. But both he and Stuart looked like they’d gone as far as they could with sanity in their own way. The school had a dark hold on us like this.
I asked should I get help. He told me to tell the main reception to call an ambulance and get Mrs Darbyshire to come here as she knew health and safety.
I seemed to float down the stairs and through the corridors as the bell rang for the end of dinner time.
Craig had dropped a full acid the night before, gone for a swim in the res’ with Olly and Gonter, then stayed up till ‘first light’, watching the stars ‘fade’. For a time there he was beyond the limits of vision. A visionary: Morrison’s Jim Morrison.
Now he sat in his bed, building a joint. Stuffed – or scrunched - into the corner as he was, he looked turtle-like, like an upright turtle.
And not quite with it. His eyes were watery and tired and shrunken insidepanda-shadows. Yet, his delivery of speech was cocky and confident. He’d been somewhere I hadn’t. He’d survived the trip. Wisdom was his, temporarily. He was bursting with enlightenment.
His mum – Cath (who he called Cath and not mum) - had gone out to play netball but she’d made sure to leave him 6 cans of Woodpecker. She always left him booze. He asked if I wanted one. I didn’t but I said yes.
The comedown had him worried about his girlfriend – Louise. She had told him last week that she might be expecting. The acid comedown was now telling him that something wasn’t right. She was having him on, or if she wasn’t lying then the baby would have problems. Disabilities. Anything.
“Might Craig – might be expecting.” I said.
He blew on the end of the spliff. It glowed briefly, mesmerically. Un-turtling himself, spliff in mouth, he spun the volume control down on the Lee Perry cd, closed his eyes, toked on the joint and returned to his favourite weed-wisdom topic.
“I can’t stop seeing Stuart’s body.” He said.
“You never saw it.”
He opened his eyes and turned his head to blow smoke out of the window. He was his own 60s album cover.
It was the sort of midsummer night that we should have been capitalising on at our age of 18, while the light lasted; breezey, but not cold. A night to make an imprint on your own history.
We had no place inside. It annoyed me that he was too tired to leave his position on the bed.
“You never saw it. I did. I found it.” I said.
“I know. But I can still see it.”
“How do you see it?”
“I feel it as well.”
He passed me the spliff. I inhaled greedily. The room swelled. I passed the spliff back and looked down at my empty hands. They frightened me.
“Stuart knew who he was.” He said. “We didn’t. We didn’t know who we were. He knew himself inside out. That’s why he did what he did.”
The weight of his bedroom. Our two bodies. The furniture and cd’s. The contents.
Two days after Stuart’s suicide, Craig’s sister – Amanda – woke up covered in painful blisters. When I entered the house that morning to walk to school with Craig, it was mayhem. Craig’s mum was crying. Craig’s dad was about to go to work but lingered in the kitchen, smoking. He would leave them all later in the year. Craig blamed Stuart. The name-calling. I neither agreed or disagreed.