There was Mohammed in front of me, face shaped like a bone, grinning at the Indian summer assunlight hit the pavement outside the pub. It must've been Saturday because it was midday and I wasn't drinking at home.
The relief earlier when the pub doors opened. Sitting in the car park in a windowed indent, I had dozed off and was woken by the doorsslamming against the wall as the barmaid allowed me in. I wasglad tostraighten my spine as Iwalked into the pub, the smell of disinfectant offering a hint of cleanlinessdespite the grime of my clothing and skin. My intercostal muscles creaked at full stretch.
Now theclean aroma was replaced by the fumes from our rolled cigarettes. Football wasmuted on the television. A Saturday paper sat unopened in front of me, next to an empty pint glass. That same barmaid, cleaning pint pots, her fringe sharp enough to cut peanuts. She glared at me occasionally, she and I sharing secrets. Shehad correctly assumedthat I hadn't slept under a roof in a while. The smell of skunk wafted from my bag and up to my nostrils.
Mohammed was content, like me, to absorb the summer's late blast.
'Drink?' Mohammed asked. A rare occurrence.
'Yes please' I smiled back, feeling a film of plaque over my unbrushed teeth. I began to scratch it off with my index finger.
That bone face of Mohammed'scrumbled into a broad grin and the lapsed muslim clapped his hands, delighted.
Looking back out onto the kerb, I saw the outgrown grass beyond it, in front of the council estate block. It was yellowed and untended, flat and lacking pride. It was most unlike the wheat field in the fens during the short period when the full grown wheat was allowed to stand. That wasbefore the monstrous combine harvester whipped each stalk with its blade, leaving blond stubble against dark brown earth-clods. Weeks after, they burned the remainder of the stem as acres of fireand clouds of black smoke wafted on every visible horizon as though the sky were ablaze. That was my childhood. The burning of the wheatremained my primary memory of childhood.
It was rare to see the wheat field glimmer with movement. Golden fronds at the tips of the plants as a strong breeze whipped them on their soil axis. Acres of wheat, a sweet, gilded grassland. Soft to lay upon I imagined, so small back then that each stalk was taller thanthe crown of my head. It was soft to lay upon, like a worn sheet, nowyellowed. The first real summer's day in the fen, the sky clear blue above it and cloudless. It was a Saturday, no school today as the song playing before the Saturday cartoonssang. There was nobody around apart from me and my brothers. Ben, the eldest, was scheming - I could tell - the fold of his mischievous brow leaving his mind transparent. He was nine years old and to my eyes as mature as any man. Christopher, my middle brother, was also excited by the glorious weather and the way it illuminated our surroundings, the flat, flat land of the fens. Always animated, he was the first to run headlong into the wheat, only his head visible in the spiky yellow sea of grass, becoming smaller as it bobbed above his hidden skinny legs.
And then there was me. Five years of my life already lived. All the machinations of human conduct soaked up from my brothers' behaviour. I hadattached myself to their every idiom and mannerism, leech-like, imitating each chuckle and sulk.
Christopher's head, his blonde hair just apparent, was a speck at the point where the wheat hit the sky. The speck approached the telegraph pole in the far distance and a tiny arm reached out, touching the great wooden mast and he turned to run back to us. Though his head was smaller than a match-head in the distance against the great perspective of the field, I could see the huge smile on his bright red lips and the gaps between his teeth beaming with pride. I could hear his panting as he ran closer, the padding of his feet upon the soil.
When it was my turn to play, My brothers urged me to run faster than Christopher had, to run faster than the breeze thatclipped the stalks.
'You've got to beat Chris!' Ben barked, as I set off, pushing the muscles in my knees with all my strength.
'You can't beat me!' Chris shouted after me, his voice now just a draft on the wind.
The telegraph polegrew closer. I plunged my fists into the air and pumped my shins into the soil below, anything to beat Chris and make myself the winner of this competition. Soon, the pole loomed large, big enough to touch and I padded my palm against it, using it as a point of ejection so that I could propel myself back towards my older brothers.
As I started back I looked to see where they were so that I could run towards them, but there was no sign of them on the dirt track from where I'd set off, where they'd encouraged me to be the fastest. I came to a stop, the game seemingly over. It was another trick. One in a long line of pranks by my older brothers. A trick to make them seem even bigger than me. I caught my breath as I stood there. My heart, still padding with enormous pressure, shook my ribcage and caused my whole body to shake. I noticed that the sun had begun to set, the sky a darkening pink against grey clouds, the sun just an orange presence obscured by the alien darkness. The warm breeze had turned into a soft but cold wind. I was in the very centre of acres of wheat without another human being in sight. I felt the sharp agoraphobia for the first time. I felt the distance between myself and others for the first ever time in that very moment. I felt the blood drain from every surface of my body, welling in the pit of my heart which was slowing now, slowing to what seemed like a stop. I felt, at that moment, like I was dying of alienation.
I began to walk back to the dirt track, every step taking far too long. Iexaggeratedto myselfthat it would take a whole lifetime to get back home. I would be scolded for missing my dinner and Christopher and Ben would be in the middle of a new game. I would be too late. They would be too deeply involvedfor me to join in and I would have to play by myself.
I was comfortable, thinking through the sadness that awaited and it served to distract me from the unfamiliarity of the surrounding darkness and impending night. I was consciously shutting out the fear I felt, alone in the dark. Then I heard a low murmur - a sound like a dog, just there, to my right. And just then, further away and to my left a separate sound - a whooping. The noises continued and by now the shadows of the clouds made the wheat stalks forbidding as they slid against each other like flimsy metal poles. The sound of their rustling became a dangerous, whispered roar. From within the stalkcages the noises continued until, with a ear-piercing shriek, my brothers jumped up from their hiding places among the straw husks, their faces contorted into monstrous shapes, forming claws with their fingers. They ran towards me, cackling between bursts of intimidating noises and, though I realised it was them, the rational part of my brain was flooded with the fear formed by my imagination. I screamed out with anguish, causing them to cackle harder, a sadistic smile on Ben's monster face and pure, giddy frenzy on Christopher's. I ran for my life to the point where the field ended and the muddy track began.
I ran harder than I had ever run, the sound of my siblings doubling over with laughter fading as I pushedfor distance between them and my hurtling body. I thrusted my pelvis forward with every stride, aiming for the edge of the field, the warm yellow light that the window of the living room at home emitted, out of sight now, but if I ran fast enough, achievable. When I reached the edge of the field, on the rim of the crop where ithit the muddy track, my feet were suddenlyconfused by the change of the surface upon whichthey ran. The soil gave way to hardened mud and the pressure of the solid surface caused my tired ankles tocollapse. I felt the crunch of a wrong bone into an incorrect tendon andmy knees buckled. As I fell onto the stony track, my head clashed against the dusty floor beneath.A bitter tastefilled my mouth asI lay there, bloodrunning from my temple and onto my lips.
Mohammed conjured a lump of black phlegm from the back of his throat with a rasping throat clearance and plopped it from his lips intothe ashtray, breaking my reminiscence. He was oblivious to the repulsed look on my face as I looked at the mucus. Stray flakes of ash clung to its shiny veneer. I imagined the lungs it had come from. The tar coated alveoli. Each tiny chamber flaccid and grey.