Gradually gearing myself up for returning to my writing once my health allows (hopefully within the next few weeks), I thought I would share with you the rough first chapter of the novel I hope to return to—my first children’s book, tentatively titled Crinklewink. Please feel free to share your thoughts here, on Facebook or Twitter.
Chapter 1: The Day Crinklewink Came to Town
We weren’t expecting him. Which was understandable, I guess, given that no one had told us we should expect him. He came walking out of the setting sun—the long shadow of his long body stretching out in front of him like it was pointing at us, choosing us.
It had been one of those dead good days. You know the type, right? Summer holidays. You get up early not because you have to, but because you want to. You have absolutely no idea what you’re going to do all day but one thing you do know? No one will be telling you what to do—or, at least, not as much as they usually do. Me—my name’s Walter, by the way, Walter Peterson, but you can just call me Walter—I’d called for my friend Elsie and our other friend Diddy Duncan Vermeer by about nine thirty and by ten we were mucking about on the common at the back of my house. We played there most days. Mainly because it was good, but also because we weren’t supposed to go no further. Our dad, well, he’s not exactly all that bright. The kind of man who hits his thumb with a hammer accidentally and then does it a second time on purpose just to see if it’ll hurt as much. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good dad. Better than some I’ve seen and probably better than a fair few I haven’t. But you know what they can be like? Of course you do. Well, he reckoned that our entire estate was full of kiddie fiddlers and that if we wandered too far you could bet your bottom dollar we’d end up being abducted and … well, I won’t go on but you get the picture.
So that’s where we had been all day. At dinner time—lunchtime, if you’re posh—Mam had brought us some sandwiches and that cheap fizzy pop from the corner shop that nobody really likes but everybody drinks, even if they don’t admit it, and we had continued doing pretty much nothing that seemed like quite a lot anyway. Duncan … well, he has Downs. Right funny he is, but not in that way where you end up taking the Mickey out of him even when you don’t mean to. He just joins in and gets on with it and me and Elsie, we like him a lot, even if he does sometimes talk when he’s eating and spit food. (Yeah, I’ve done that, too, but Duncan can spit food like no one. If it was a proper Olympic event, they’d say, “Sod the Special Olympics, you, young man, are now on Team GB—here’s your food, get spitting!”) … Anyway, Duncan had been having one of his really active days. That’s what his mam calls them. Basically, he just gets like really hyper and it takes some tiring him out. He’d been dashing about on the common like a blue bummed fly (you know what I’m really saying when I say “blue bummed fly”, don’t you?) Me and Elsie had been doing our best to calm him down. Not because we were worried that he might be too wound up for his mam when he went home—we didn’t actually like her all that much so, generally speaking, we kind of liked taking Duncan home as wound up and messy as possible, just to watch her eyes pop and her ears turn red. No, we’d basically been trying to calm him down because we were both knackered.
It was getting late but it was still light, so we didn’t have to go. Not yet. We sat cross-legged like three corners of the triangle on our little patch of common, trying to keep him entertained with a new word. He struggled with some. His tongue … I don’t know, it was sort of thick, I suppose. Not thick as in stupid. Thick as in … well, thick. So sometimes certain words just wouldn’t work for him. But he really loved trying. And almost every day we, me and Elsie, we did our best to find one he hadn’t attempted before. Today it was—my choice, Elsie would never have picked this one—“testicle”.
“Testicle,” I said.
“Heffittle,” Duncan shouted excitedly.
“No,” Elsie said, patiently, her large, black framed geeky specs slipping down her too-small nose, “not heffittle, testicle. T-t-t-esticle.”
Duncan grinned and held up a finger, pointing at the sky as if to say, Right, that makes sense, I’ve got it now! “H-h-h-effittle!”
“Maybe we should try penis,” I said to Elsie, but she didn’t seem all that impressed with this.
“Maybe we shouldn’t, Walter. Maybe we should teach him something useful instead.”
“You don’t think a pen—”
“Don’t even!” She held her hand in my face, turning away from me with her eyes closed. “I’ve told you before, Walter, dear, useful. Something interesting and not relating to …” She looked back at me and … down … waggling her fingers … “… not relating to that. Something like quadratic equations or … I know!”
“She does!” Duncan said. “She always does!”
“Cosmology,” Elsie told us very calmly.
I kind of got the feeling that the day was going to end in one of those evenings that went on much too long. If Elsie got talking about cosmology—she’d done it before; loads of times—it would never get dark and we’d be forced to sit there listening to her for like ever. I mean, she was dead clever and everything. Still is. But she just wouldn’t shut up once she got started. Dad would have said that she was like a long playing record—whatever one of those is when they it’s at home.
Thankfully, though, we were interrupted.
I think I’d always been waiting. Ever since I was little. Waiting for stuff to happen. That’s why I liked being outdoors so much. If something was going to happen, you could bet your life it had more of a chance of happening outside.
And it did.
You know, right, those times when you look back at stuff and think to yourself I knew something like that was going to happen!? Well, that was what this was like. The signs were everywhere: the way the sun shone that day, different in a way I couldn’t explain; the way the pop that Mam had brought us had bubbled and fizzed like it never had before; even the way Elsie’s sparkly Doc Martens caught the light—all of this told me things I just couldn’t hear at the time, things like Something’s going to happen. Someone’s coming.
Like I said earlier, he came out of the setting sun and his long shadow kind of reached out towards us. Reminded me of one of those old gangster or horror movies in black and white you see on telly sometimes—a bad guy or a vampire standing in a doorway with the light behind him or it, bleeding blackness into the room (I read that somewhere and decided to borrow it, by the way … probably best if you don’t tell anyone because Elsie said it might be something called “theft of intellectual property”, whatever that means). The three of us looked up and around in his direction. He was tall and, to begin with, difficult to make out with the sun setting behind him, but when he moved a little to one side I could see that he was about the same age as us—about ten or eleven, something like that. With jet black hair, long and greasy, and pale skin that made me think of the exercise books we wrote in at school, he should have looked unhealthy, especially when you saw how skinny he was, too. But this boy didn’t look ill or anything. In fact, something about him made me think that whoever he was he would probably live forever.
“My name is Aaron Crinklewink,” he said. “And seven days from now a woman with purple hair will try to kill me.”
Elsie’s alarm bells were ringing. I could tell. Heck, I could practically hear them. Dingdong, dingdong, dingflippingdong. She moved closer to Duncan, watching Crinklewink out of the corner of her eye. (See what I did there? Crinklewink? Eye? … Never mind …) I looked at her and she shook her head as if to say Don’t encourage him, and when I moved to her side she whispered, loud enough for Crinklewink to hear, “Another Norman Andrews.”
Yes. Norman Andrews. Or Andrew Normans, as we liked to call him. Now there is a story. Not much of a one but, well, I suppose you want to hear it anyway, yes? … You don’t? Oh, well, I won’t bother, then …
Norman Andrews was this kid who was at our school for a while years ago—back when we were nine. He was one of those boys who just aren’t happy unless they are bragging about something. The new laces he got for his sensible shoes. The way his mother had taught him how to use something called a slide rule (Elsie knew what this was but, to be honest, I couldn’t have cared less). Even the fact that his birth had gone on for three whole days. He always had something to tell but the best by far—the one that really peed every one off—was the story he told her about his dad.
“Father,” he would say, chin raised, every letter of the word spoken dead clear like—as if he was in one of those BBC2 films set way back where the women have their bosoms pushed up under their chins. “Father is a civil servant. Very, very high-ranking in the Inland Revenue. Has his own cubicle and paper clip supply and everything. Pushing paper all day like you wouldn’t believe. Anyone important needs any coffee making, he’s the man they come to because, you know, he can be trusted to do the job properly. That’s what they all say: ‘If you want the job doing properly, go to a man who can be trusted like Andrew Andrews!’”
He just went on and on. How his dad was the only one in the entire building who could fix the photo copier. How Andrew Andrews (stupid name alert!) regularly fixed the toilets. The time when the fabled Mr Andrews, as our teacher once called him under her breath, went out onto a ledge, four storeys up, to wipe some bird poo off the window because the tea lady told him to do it. (He nearly fell, apparently, and had to go out in his lunch break for some new underpants.)
Brag, brag, brag. That’s all we got … until the day when we discovered, I can’t quite remember how, just what his father really did.
“You’re a liar, Norman Andrews,” Elsie had said to him. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Making out like your dad is something he isn’t.” Norman had tried to deny it but, well, when Elsie gets the bit between her teeth there’s no stopping her. “He can’t help it, you know. Your dad. He can’t help what he is. You should be proud of him, instead of trying to make him look better than he is.” I’m still not sure that bit came out quite as it was meant to. “It’s not his fault he isn’t a civil servant with his own cubicle. But so what? So what if he is only a high-ranking paratrooper with hundreds of missions under his belt and more medals than you can shake a really big stick at? Maybe he doesn’t come up to your standards—but, Norman, he’s your father!”
I’ll tell you, by the time she’d finished with him, Norman Andrews was a right mess, sitting in the corner of the playground blubbering like a baby. I’d almost expected him to start sucking his thumb and filling his nappy.
Funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
So, remembering Norman Andrews—but, even more, remembering what Elsie had done to him—I didn’t take the decision to ignore Elsie’s warning lightly. But still I did it.
We sat down together cross-legged, the four corners of a square, now, Native American Indians preparing for a powwow, and Crinklewink lowered his head, doing this huge sigh-thing that made me think that we were really in for something, here. I noticed his fingernails were dirty: not just your normal, everyday dirt, but real grimy digging-up-dead-bodies-by-hand kind of dirt. His hands themselves didn’t seem too bad—Duncan’s were far dirtier—but those fingernails …
“You were joking, weren’t you?” Elsie asked.
Crinklewink looked at her questioningly. “What about?”
“About that woman.”
Duncan waved a finger about, as if pointing at some moving object the rest of us couldn’t see. “Purple hair,” he said, glancing at Elsie. “Woman with purple hair. Right, Else?”
“That’s right,” she said to Duncan, before turning her attention back to Crinklewink. “The woman with purple hair. You were joking about her trying to kill you in seven days’ time, right?”
Crinklewink didn’t look away from her—not right away—which was pretty impressive, I thought, because Elsie could be right intimidating when she wanted to be, especially when she looked over her specs at you, which was what she was doing now. He just stared right back at her for the longest time without speaking, and then looked at Duncan.
Our pal was doing what he sometimes did—when he wasn’t getting words wrong and spitting food for Great Britain. Mouth open, like completely focused on Crinklewink, he was dribbling down his chin a bit. I was just about to tell him that it was “time to mop up”, which was our code for “wipe your flipping chin, Duncan, mate”, when Crinklewink reached into his trouser pocket, leaning back, and pulled out a grubby hanky. Without even pausing to think about it, he reached over and very gently wiped Duncan’s chin for him. Duncan—normally not that good with strangers—was dead chuffed about this. I could tell. He grinned this really huge grin and looked at me and Elsie as if to say, “Was that cool or what?”
I glanced at Elsie. Elsie glanced at me. She seemed to approve. And then we were both looking at Crinklewink as he started talking again.
“I wasn’t joking,” he said. “One week from today she will try to kill me. I’ve known it ever since I came to town. My first day here, it was revealed to me.”
I started to ask “revealed how?”, but Elsie cut me off. “When did you come to town?” she asked.
Shrugging to make us think he didn’t consider stuff like that all that much, he said, “Ages ago. Last week.”
“And haven’t you told no one?” I wanted to know, my original question already forgotten.
“Anyone,” Elsie corrected. “Haven’t you told anyone?”
“I haven’t told anyone or no one,” Crinklewink said, one side of his mouth twitching into a bit of a smile. “Only you three.”
Elsie had been starting to take to Crinklewink. It was easy to see. She kind of leaned forward when he was talking and the little crease between her eyebrows got deeper. The handkerchief trick with Duncan had helped, of course, but there was more to it than that: there was just something about him that made you want to like him.
But still Elsie was cautious. No one said anything for a bit—because we were watching her as she … well, breathed, I suppose. That was all she was doing but Duncan, Crinklewink and I knew she was doing loads more. She was thinking and stuff. Getting ready to say something. And if we knew what was good for us, we’d better be ready to listen (even Crinklewink had already cottoned on to this, it seemed).
“Only us three,” she finally said.
“Only you three,” Crinklewink confirmed.
“Why, after one whole week of being in town, did you suddenly decide to tell us? Three kids you’ve never met before.”
Crinklewink seemed on the verge of doing that shrugging thing again, but he thought better of it and instead leaned back on his elbows, looking up at the darkening sky. “Because I know, I suppose,” he finally said.
“What do you know?” I asked when Elsie didn’t say anything.
“I know that a woman with purple hair is definitely going to try to kill me seven days from now,” he said. “And I also know that the three of you are going to help me stop her.”
“Can I ask you a question, Dad?”
“Do you mean, ‘May I ask you a question?’?”
“Don’t start, Dad. I get enough of that from Elsie.”
“That is one clever young lady. You’d do well to pay more attention to her.”
We were sitting in the living room with a repeat of Time Team on the telly and the curtains drawn. Dad was slurping Cuppa Soup through a straw—his cheeks caving in as he struggled with the lumpy bits—and I was filling up with crisp sandwiches because, well, supper had been pretty horrific (some kind of casserole that looked as if it had been sneezed onto the plate). Mam was somewhere out the back, “attending to her domestic chores”, as Dad liked to put it, so it was just us two men.
“May I ask you question, then?” I asked.
“Fire away!” Dad said, waving his hand and almost twanging his straw out of his mug. “Ask your old dad anything! What he doesn’t know, he can find out! What he can’t find out, he can make up!”
He seemed to find this funnier than I did but I chuckled along with him for a minute and then said, “What would you do, Dad, if you thought someone was going to kill you?”
Sucking on his straw, he thought about this (as best he could) and then asked, “You mean like fatally kill me dead, right?”
You see what I mean, right? About him not being … well, you know, not all that bright? I thought about hitting him with some witty reply but it would have been wasted on him. So I just nodded and waited to see what he would say.
“Actually happened to me once,” he said. And I was surprised. The very idea that someone would want to kill my dad … well, it wasn’t exactly scary—even though it probably should have been—because it just seemed totally barmy. I mean, he was just such a pointless bloke, really. What could he ever do to make someone want to kill him? “Nineteen ninety-two, it was, if I recall correctly,” he continued. “And I had been really stupid.” Now that was hard to believe! “The way you can be when you’re young and foolhardy, you know?”
“How had you been really stupid, Dad?” It seemed a reasonable question: I’d seen him be really stupid in loads of different ways—a little detail didn’t seem too much to ask for.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed in front of me, Dad.” I almost added, I know how stupid you are already but decided that probably wouldn’t have been very kind—or sensible.
He gave me this fatherly nod that I think was meant to make me see how proud he was of me or something, and then said, “Well, yes. Very foolish. You see I committed a cardinal sin, our Walter. Something someone in my position should never even have dreamt of doing.”
“What did you do, Dad?” I wished he’d get a flipping move on.
“What?” He slurped on his straw and waited for me to explain the question I’d just asked—which I didn’t know how to explain because it had kind of explained itself when I’d asked it. Or I thought it had, anyway.
“The cardinal sin you committed. What was it? What did you do?”
“Oh, that. Well. Bloody stupid—excuse my French. Did I say that already?”
“The bit about you being stupid?”
“That’s the one.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Difficult to believe, I know, young man. But even your old dad can be stupid.”
I didn’t say anything.
“First day it was, you see. And I was all excited about it. I mean, it isn’t every day you get to start a new job at the bicycle recycling plant, now, is it?”
“Bicycle recycling?” I was, as Elsie would have said, incredulous. (Good word, or what?)
“You’ve got it! We recycled cycles in, as our supervisor liked to say, a cyclical manner. Was actually dead good. The old bicycles would be put on this conveyor belt and they would go all the way around the building. The first half, everyone working at the conveyor belt would take the bicycles to pieces and put all the bits into this shoot like thing which would zoom them over to the other side of the room where all those bits would be recycled and the bicycles would return fully recycled at the beginning of a conveyor belt! Genius, I tell you!”
I kept my gob firmly shut. As difficult as it was.
“So, I was all excited, you see. Who wouldn’t be, right? Top-notch job like that. And I made a fatal mistake.”
“What did you do, Dad?” I’d just about forgotten why I’d even asked him in the first place. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I could remember what I’d asked him in the first place.
“Turned up on time! First day! I mean, talk about setting the bar too high!”
I remembered. “And that made someone want to kill you?”
“What? Oh, well, kill me might be exaggerating it just a little bit but I certainly rubbed Frank MacArthur up the wrong way, I’ll tell you that!”
Out in the back kitchen, I could hear Mam clattering pots and humming Firestarter—her favourite tune from the olden days. On the telly, the little bloke out of that old comedy Blackadder was running about and looking into holes like holes were the most exciting thing in the whole wide world. (See what I did there? Hole? Whole? … Never mind.) And right that minute I would have rather been anywhere other than in that living room with Dad. Running around a field with Tony Thingumy or in the back kitchen with Mam drying the pots for her.
“So he didn’t really want to kill you, then?” It had to be asked.
“Who? Frank MacArthur? Heck, no. Nicest man you could ever wish to meet! That first day? Made me feel like the most special fella on the planet! Bent over backwards to make me feel welcome—not literally, of course!”
Once he had finished laughing at this, I shuffled about on the settee a bit, sighed, folded my arms, unfolded my arms, shuffled a bit more, and then said, “Dad?”
“Your soup is getting cold.”
“Good man!” he said, and went back to his painful-looking sucking.
In my room, I closed the door behind me and turned on the light. It was proper dark outside, now—and inside, for that matter—but the warm glow from the overhead bulb and the posters of jungle, desert and Pampas scenes made me feel right where I was supposed to be. Indoors but outdoors at the same time.
It was a relief to be on my own—away from Dad and his confusing answers that were never really answers. It was my own fault, of course. I should have known better. A conversation with him was like that bicycle recycling plant: everything got taken the bits and then put back together and then taken to bits and … well, you know. Could just go on and on and around and around forever. And we wouldn’t want that, now, would we?
Thinking about putting my pyjamas on, I walked over to the window. What if Elsie was right? I suddenly asked myself. What if Crinklewink was just another Norman Andrews?
I liked Elsie. Yes, I know—not supposed to admit stuff like that, but I did. She was fun and clever and could crack her knuckles better than anyone I knew. One thing more than anything else about her, though, what kept me being her friend, was that she was dead good at making sure I didn’t mess up too much. Because I could do that. Even when I was trying not to. Especially when I was trying not to. It was like the time we went into town together, even though we weren’t supposed to. We were just, you know, wandering around shops, not buying anything, and I noticed this bloke in Marks & Spencer’s following us at a distance. “You’re trying too hard,” Elsie had said to me. And I’d known exactly what she had meant as soon as she’d said it—because the minute I’d entered the shop I’d felt very … well, like everyone was looking at me, and I was right determined not to look suspicious. Of course, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? We’ve all done it, right? Tried to blend in and not stick out? Hands in pockets, whistling a merry tune—that kind of thing? Well that’s what I was like. Elsie sorted that out, though. She talked to me. Took my mind off blending in and not sticking out. And pretty soon that store detective, because that’s what he had to be, just disappeared into the crowd. I like to think he was of chasing proper villains but he was more than likely just on his tea break.
So I usually listened to Elsie, even when I pretended not to. It didn’t help today that she had seemed to warm to Crinklewink, though. First there had been the warning and then … well, did she like him or didn’t she?
By the window, I rested my bum against the edge of my desk. I should really have been getting ready for bed—reading my book about the Amazonian rainforests—but I wasn’t tired. Something, Crinklewink, I think, wouldn’t let me go. It was going to happen, I suddenly thought. Just like I’d always known it would. Something. In fact, hadn’t it already?
Down on the street below, on the opposite side of the road, just outside of the reach of the nearest streetlight, something moved. A juddering, stop-go-stop kind of movement. It was enough, though. It made me look.
Moving closer to the window, I cupped my hands around my eyes and tried to figure out what was down there. It was proper dark, now, and … was it just a cat? One of those urban foxes I’d seen mating on Springwatch? No, this was something bigger. Much bigger. Unless I was mistaken (and this time I knew I wasn’t), there was someone down there. A live living human being, as Dad might have said. That juddering, stop-go-stop movement again—only this time it was more of a juddering, stop-go-stop movement that kept right on going kind of movement.
And there she was! Passing under the streetlight. A woman. Dark hair that didn’t look quite right, quite normal, somehow. She moved like she meant it. She wasn’t uncertain or anything, now. And as she walked, she turned and lifted her head, looking up at my window.
Did she smile?
I think she did.
©2015 Gary William Murning