Sunday, 14 October 2012

Excerpt from Thank You, I Understand: First chapter

Thank You, I Understand
1. The morning after the night before

It was quite late in the morning by the time Rocky Rhodes finally made it into town, little knowing that he had a first appointment with destiny that day, and as yet still blissfully ignorant of the fact that his every move was being watched, recorded and later scrutinized, as it had been for quite some time.

Mother had insisted that he get some food in his churning stomach before he left and, bless her cotton socks, she had put on her pinny and busied herself in the kitchen to make him a bulging bacon and egg sandwich. He probably looked as bad as he felt, and she was no fool.

Looking up from the sports page of his daily snoozepaper, his father had quickly taken in and summed up the situation with a stereotypically grumpy “You look like warmed up bowel movements,” by way of greeting when Rocky had finally clambered out of the pit and made his way downstairs. Well, his words were a little more choice than that, but you get the picture.

“They're playing your song on the radio, I see ...” Rather too appropriate and timely for comfort, it was a twelve bar blues number about some drunken low-life ending up flat out on the tiles again. That kind of thing happened a lot in Rocky's life. He'd read somewhere, in one of the underground student magazines that it was called synchronicity.

Or wishful thinking, a wise voice inside his head corrected him, both denying and confirming his beliefs at one and the same time. That also happened a lot in his life.

“And a very good morning to you, too, Dad,” he'd lilted in return.

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” his father had retorted. And he, of all people, should know that.

Rocky had been at work collecting glasses in the Kabin night club and hadn't got to bed until almost three in the morning. It had been a busy night and the staff had been constantly crying out for fresh glasses at the bar. Thank heaven for small mercies: at least school was out for the next two weeks – as, yet again, he'd had far too much beer to drink and still felt quite nauseous and hungover, despite having thrown up most of the drink and a chicken vindaloo in a dark alleyway cum festering urinal between two terraced houses on the way home. Feeling nervous and rather awkward at the best of times, the bright, sweltering sun and the hustling, bustling crowds of holidaymakers, or grockles as his fellow freaks called them, didn't help one bit. Still, it beat Grimeley, where he'd grown up and which had perpetually been shrouded in a stinking haze from the factories and the local brewery.

He'd been hoping to get hold of the Black Sabbath album, Master of Reality, the lyrics of the track Into the Void still ringing in his ears from the club. The track was about valiant freedom fighters escaping from brainwashing and pollution to a better world.

As it happened, however, helpful and anxious to please as the staff in the local record shop were, they didn't have the album in stock, nor any others that particularly took his fancy so Rocky decided, a little dejectedly, to leave town and see if any of the Kabin Krew were round at his friend Harry's place.

“Damn.” He spun on his heel and strode back to the high street to have a look in Boots, the chemist. As Rocky turned, he didn't notice the figure who'd been following him through town abruptly duck into the doorway of a nearby hardware store. His mind was otherwise engaged.

It was all rather embarrassing, really. Just as they were about to break up for the holidays, the Headmaster had sent word that he wanted to see Rocky. He hadn't a clue why, though, as it was some time since he'd last broken any college rules, well with the exception of wandering off down the lane on a lunchtime to have a sly cigarette or cannabis spliff. Yes, they lived dangerously in those days.

“Rhodes, I don't know how to tell you this,” Mr. Scott had begun, pacing up and down the office with his hands clasped behind his back.

Rocky gulped and Mr Scott stood still for a moment and peered into Rocky's eyes whilst his words sank in. He suddenly had a vision of a sergeant major bearing down on him as he stood at attention on the parade ground. “Am I 'urting you, lad?” “No, sergeant major.” “Well, I should be, laddie boy – because I'm standin' on your 'air!”

“But you see, Rhodes – and this is no laughing matter, let me tell you – I have had complaints about your ... um ... personal hygiene.”

All the colour drained from Rocky's face as he heard those words and a wave of adrenalin and fear coursed through his veins.

“Now, without mentioning any names and to be frank with you, one of the staff tells me that she is nauseated by the stench of body odour and stale tobacco and has to give you a wide berth. This is thus preventing any one-to-one contact in her lessons, you understand.”

That would be Ms. Pratt, of course. Pratt by name and Pratt by nature, as she was less than affectionately known. Coming from a far more stiff and starchy generation, they never had hit it off together. By this time, Rocky was wishing that he could crawl away like some slug and hide in a crevice under a nearby rock.

“I trust that you will do something to remedy this intolerable situation, Rhodes.”

Jeez, this came as quite a shock, right out of the blue.

“Well, er ... thank you for telling me, Mr. Scott. I really didn't appreciate that I had this ... er ... problem. I'm sorry, I had no idea. I'll see to it right away.”

“And remember: cleanliness is next to godliness, young man,” the Head added solemnly, and he waved Rocky out of his office.  Now that was a short, sharp shock of a lesson which he would not forget until his dying day.

Once he was out of the headmaster's office, Rocky grabbed his satchel and hoofed it down the lane, too embarrassed and ashamed to go back to Ms. Pratt's class. As soon as he got in, he ran a hot bath and tossed his dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Of course his mother wanted to know what that was all about, so he lied to her, telling her that he'd got muddy on a cross-country run.

Anyhow, today he'd decided to have a look in Boots to see if he could find a deodorant spray as, now somewhat more sensitive to such matters, he'd noticed that his armpits smelt a bit iffy. Deodorants were rather newfangled at that time, and he hoped that Boots would have something in stock at a price he could afford. It certainly wasn't something his parents' generation would have used: they grew up in an age in which they'd have a cat lick on a morning and after work and a bath maybe once a week. Well, so had he, for that matter. As for Mother, when she saw the spray she told him she thought that folk were becoming far too obsessed with cleanliness these days. And this from a woman who didn't bother to wash her hands after she'd visited the loo and liked to lick her fingers as she baked her cakes.

Quite by chance on the way home, as he cut through the back streets of town to avoid the Spring tourists, Rocky noticed a faded sign above a doorway at the end of a terrace. The yellowing paint was beginning to peel off, but he could still make out the words: Rumple's Secondhand Book Emporium. There was no shop window or goods on display, only this old and rather battered wooden door which stood slightly and temptingly ajar.

On a whim, partly out of curiosity and perhaps also out of some vestigial knowledge that there was no such thing as mere chance or coincidence, Rocky pushed the squeaky door open and clunked his way up a steep flight of rickety bare wooden steps leading up inside to the floor above. There were dusty old tomes everywhere, many of them stacked at an angle on a sloping ledge that followed the steps up; countless more upstairs on plain wooden shelving units and disorganized heaps at the foot of the shelves and atop the units which filled the labyrinthine rooms. It was like a cemetery of forgotten books.

The other thing that couldn't escape his notice was that despite the fact that there was at least one old sash window flung wide open, it was like an oppressive bakehouse in that bookshop, as the weather was unusually warm for that time of year. A mini heat wave, according to the radio.

The figure who had been following Rocky watched as he entered the bookshop and was about to follow him in, but changed his mind, deciding that this might be a little indiscreet.

“Just browsing,” Rocky offered, spying an old lady in a tweed two-piece suit sitting behind a book-strewn desk near the stairs. She merely smiled in acknowledgement and continued with her knitting. Little booties for a baby girl, by the look of it.

For some strange reason, Rocky felt that there was a definite reason for his being there that day and – irrational as it might seem – he was convinced that somewhere in this disorganized warehouse was his book, a book that he was destined to read – though exactly what that book might be he had no idea. However, when fifteen minutes later he still hadn't found a single work that even vaguely interested him (other than a magnificent and expensive volume of erotica into which he sneaked furtive glances), Rocky did begin to wonder whether this destiny thing might actually have more to do with the leftover effects of the spliff he'd smoked round at Harry's the previous night. Maybe even the LSD they'd all dropped at the weekend. Even spotting something as banal as a screwed up foil sweet wrapper in the gutter could be misinterpreted as a deep and meaningful mystical experience when you were high on acid, and at a recent rock festival they'd attended, when Ray saw a wagon with bright flashing orange lights going round the site sucking up the debris, he honestly believed that the aliens had landed and, in a panic, he had leapt fully clothed into the nearby river to escape. He could easily have drowned, but fortunately the shock of the cold water woke him up and brought him to his senses. Anything could happen when you were high on acid. For example, one of the guys they knew had become convinced he was some kind of superman and, with gay abandon, he'd leapt from the top of a multi-storey car park. The word was, they had to scrape the poor guy's brains off the pavement below. There was also the danger of having a bad trip on acid that had been cut with some noxious substance in order to make a bigger profit at others' expense. So, the number one rule was: don't ever take acid when you're on your own. Number two was: try just half a tab first to make sure the stuff is okay.

Rather dejectedly, having again decided to give up the foraging as a bad job, he turned back toward the door and was on the point of leaving when –  lo! and behold! – something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. There on a shelf beside the door stood two paperbacks, the only two books in fact that were turned with their front covers facing outward. Walking over to inspect the well-thumbed books, his eyes lit up as he read the title of the first: With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet by some explorer and theosophist by the name of Alexandra David-Neel. Now that was more like it. And when he saw the second title: Shambhala: Oasis of Light by Andrew Tomas, which was described as “evidence of a mysterious hidden kingdom of advanced knowledge,” he could feel his scalp tingle in an unexpected momentary rapture. He'd first become aware of such rapturous, if fleeting, moments whilst watching a particularly moving scene in the film of Joan of Arc. Anyhow, it looked like his hunch had been right after all.

He eagerly read the blurb on the back of the book:

Legends of a mysterious kingdom beyond the Himalayas, hidden deep within the mountains, have persisted for generations.

Roerich spoke of a hidden land in central Asia which is inaccessible to all except initiates. Prester John spoke of a fantastic realm very similar to Hiarchas as referred to by Philostratus a thousand years previously ...

Some believe that this legendary kingdom may be a special brotherhood from which Guatama, Jesus Christ and others have been sent forth in order to bring Mankind to a higher state of consciousness.

Andrew Tomas presents compelling evidence that this kingdom – Shambhala – does indeed exist.


Chortling to himself on his doubly good fortune, Rocky immediately took the two paperbacks to the desk and dug in his pocket for some change. “I'll have these, please,” he greeted the bookseller.

The old lady took the books, made a painstaking note of the titles in a handwritten ledger and popped them into a brown paper bag for him. “Thank you, that'll be fifty pence in new money, please, young man,” she smiled. “I'm sure you'll enjoy the books: they're both a jolly read if you're just setting out on a lifetime's spiritual quest.”

At that moment, the import of the bookseller's words completely passed Rocky by, and it was only much later in life that he realized what she meant when she referred to “just setting out on a lifetime's spiritual quest.” Back then, he hadn't appreciated that what he mistakenly took to be spirituality was more the “way of the wizard” and that spirituality was actually something altogether different.

“By the way, I'm Mrs. Rumple. But you can call me Edna. And you are ...”

“Richard Rhodes,” he returned. “My friends call me Rocky.”

“Good to meet you, Rocky,” she beamed. Then: “Oh, I see! Rocky roads. Quite.”

Sheesh, if he had a pound for every time he'd heard that one, by now he'd be some rich kid.

“Do call again, young man,” the old lady smiled benignly. “And take care.”

Thanking her, and conscious that time was pressing on, Rocky clattered down the stairs and headed out of the town centre. He'd arrived back at the door of his parents' house before he realized that, in his eagerness, he'd completely forgotten about his intention to call on Harry. Oh, what the heck, he reflected: might as well get stuck into the books.

As it turned out, Rocky spent most of the next three days and well into the nights in his bedroom with his head buried in those books, avidly reading until his head was swimming.

“Richard David!” his father bellowed up the stairs, as he turned the last beguiling page.

Hmm. When Dad called him by his full Sunday name, it usually spelt trouble with a capital T. He could already feel his cheeks flush guiltily.

“How long are you going to spend up there in your bedroom, treating this place like a ruddy hotel?” Father wanted to know.
Oh, bollocks.

“Sorry, Dad: just coming,” he called back, jumping to his feet, rushing to finish off the last page and hurrying to the door with his tail between his legs like one of Pavlov's salivating dogs.

“Aye and so's bless├Ęd Christmas,” his father retorted.

“Right then, what have you been up to these last few days?” Dad demanded to know as they sat down for dinner. It was always a rather formal occasion. As head of the table, Dad carved and served the meat and passed the plates around, then Mum followed up by serving the potatoes and veg from tureens. That stage complete, it was Dad's turn to go first with the gravy boat. He was strictly a meat, two veg and gravy man: his service in the second world war had put him off “foreign muck” as they always used curry to disguise the taste of the rancid meat.

“Well, I ...”

“Hmm, this veg could have done with a bit more salt, Mary.” Nothing to do with his own jaded palette, of course.

“I bought a couple of books from a secondhand shop on the corner of Argyll Street ...”

“Anything interesting?”

“Oh, so so.”

“You're always so damn secretive, Richard. I asked you a simple enough question and I expect an answer.”

Why so secretive? Well, for starters, if his father didn't know what he was up to, he couldn't criticize it, could he? That was possibly why he kept starting things but not finishing them: if he finished something, then his father would expect to see it, and then again his work would be found deficient in some way and criticized.

“Oh, um, exploring, mysticism. That sort of thing.”

“Hear that, Mary? Mysticism. Always got his head in the ruddy clouds, that one.”

“Ay?”

“'Ay is what you feed 'orses, Richard,” his father corrected.

“And what's mysticism when it's at home?” his mother asked in a condescending tone.

“Airy fairy nonsense, Mary, that's what mysticism is and that's all you need to know,” Dad retorted. “Not a lot of call for mystical masters these days down at the Labour Exchange.”

Rocky couldn't help but be reminded of the actor Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part.

“Now, my lad, on a more mundane subject, you've got your exams coming up soon, and I haven't seen you doing any revising. So I'd suggest that you pull your socks up and get stuck in. Unless you want to end up sweeping the streets.”
Oh, Lord. Here we go again.

“And while we're about it, I've taken the liberty of seeing the manager, Mr. Reid, at the Kabin. I told him that you won't be working any more weekends until the summer due to your school commitments. He was very understanding.”

   ~~~O~~~

Suitably chastened, Rocky spent the rest of the week revising for his mock exams. The real “A” Level exams weren't until next year, but the mocks were used to predict grades and played a part in the university selection process, so it was important to do as well as possible in them. His elder brother Ronald had gone to university and even gained a Doctorate and there was a lot of pressure on to achieve, so flunking out was seriously not an option. To be fair (or perhaps the operative word was “charitable”?), though Dad was a stickler and a half, having left school at the age of fourteen himself and ending up in all manner of abysmally paid, menial jobs, he wanted his children to have a better start in life and not make the same mistakes he had.

If the truth be told, by the end of the week Rocky was beginning to get really worried: because try as he might, and though he went over his notes time and time again, the information simply wasn't sinking in, or if it was, then it wasn't staying put. Some things he put his heart into and was really quite good at, but others simply didn't turn him on. There was of course another possibility: that all the drugs he'd been taking had somehow addled his brain and also contributed to, if not exacerbated, feelings of alienation from mainstream society. Yes, that was really quite a worrying revelation. And with only one week before the mocks, it looked like it was way too late to do anything about it.

   ~~~O~~~

“Oh, screw it!” Rocky declared emphatically, gathering up his ring binders and textbooks from the bed and dropping them on his old chest of drawers. He looked at his watch. It was still only 8 P.M. and the night was still young.

Sniffing his armpits, he pulled off his t-shirt, rooted in his drawers for another, sprayed on some deodorant and dashed downstairs, pulling on his faded denim jacket as he went.

“Hi,” he called popping his head around the living room door.

His father looked up from the sports page and raised his eyebrows. “Going somewhere, sunshine?”

“I'm short of a few maths notes, so I'm just popping round to Harry's to see if he has them. Be back in an hour or so,” he fibbed. Well, it was less of a fib and more of an out and out lie, to be honest.

“And mind you do,” his father added, giving each word due measure. “Mind you do, or you'll feel the back of my hand.”
On the way to Harry's, realizing that he was running low on tobacco, Rocky scoured the pavements and gutters, looking for discarded dog ends that he could tear apart later and roll up. Of course, pub ashtrays held the richest pickings, but beggars could not be choosers. He knew how disgusting and base this was, to do something that only a desperate vagrant might have reason to, and yet he really couldn't help himself. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms always got the better of common sense and of his fear of contracting some dreadful communicable disease. His habit did not work at a rational level, but rather at a deep, perhaps wounded psychological level, and it was not susceptible to reason, however kindly, eloquently or directly phrased.

When he arrived, Rocky rang the ornate doorbell and waited. Harry's mum came to the door. “Oh, hi there Richard. You'll want Harry?”

“Hi, Mrs Davies. Yes, please.” Harry's mum was a real smasher. She never had a bad word to say about anybody. “I must say, your hair looks nice.”

“Thank you, yes I just went to the hairdresser's today for a wash and perm. I'll just let him know you're here. Harry? Richard's here to see you,” she called up the stairs.

“Come on up, Rocky,” Harry called back down.

“Right, I'll leave you to it, then. You know the way,” she smiled.

“Thanks a lot, Mrs Davies,” he said, climbing the stairs. Had he been at home, he'd have taken them two at a time, but he thought it best to show a little decorum. Besides, that stair carpet must have cost them an arm and a leg by the look of it.

By the time Rocky got to the top of the stairs, Harry had a spliff rolled up and waiting for him. They didn't call him the Four-skin Wonder for nothing. Indeed, he could even make a six-skin using the raffia rolling mat he kept in his guitar case.

“Yo! Rocky, man!” lilted Ray Skinner as he entered Harry's den and they all exchanged Kabin Krew greetings and high fives. Ray had come on his new motorbike (well, the bike was just a step up from a moped, really, but it was still cool) and he had his shiny leather jacket and boots on.

“Gently, bro',” he advised Harry as they shook hands. Harry was a shade taller and a lot beefier than Rocky and his hands were like spades. They sometimes called him the Gentle Giant. Ray was a skinny little rake, like him. Maybe it was the nervous energy burning off the calories? How did the saying go? Good things come in small packages, though in Rocky's case they'd perhaps made an exception, he mused.

“We'd given you up for lost,” prompted Harry.

Rocky sighed deeply. “Don't ask.”

“Exam revision?”

“Read my lips,” he joked, through gritted teeth.

“Never mind, this'll blow away your blues,” Harry smiled, handing him the spliff and the honour of lighting up.

Five minutes later and they were sitting around in a circle, cross-legged on the floor and any semblance of intelligent conversation had given way to incoherent mystical ramblings and fits of hysterics.

Ten minutes later and the doorbell rang. Quick as a flash, Ray gathered up the dog ends and was already out of the door to flush them away, wrapped in a bundle of loo paper; Rocky hastily lit a couple of smelly joss sticks and Harry was at the window, trying to ease it open quietly to let in some air and see who was at the door. If it was the Drug Squad (DS), they could be in deep shit.

“Panic over,” Harry whistled.

“Who is it?”

“Donna.”

Donna was Ray's old girlfriend.

“You okay with that, Ray?” asked Harry. “I mean if you're not happy, I can always tell her ...”

“Yes, that's a-okay. We're still good friends.”

“G'day, dudes!” Donna greeted them as she entered the den. “Group hug, group hug!”

“Hi.”

“Certainly am!” she laughed, giving Rocky a hug and squeezing her ample bosom up against him. “As high as a kite, mate.”

“Now what on earth is that exotic aroma?” she asked, feigning innocence.

Harry shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “Heck, I'm sorry but we just finished off the last of it, Donna.”

She pouted, then unexpectedly broke into a cheesy grin and tossed a little plastic bag full of grass into Harry's lap. “Da-da! Will you do the honours, Harry? I'm all fingers and thumbs. Half wrecked already.”

“Donna, you're an angel,” Rocky beamed.

“That's what they all say,” she joked.

The very first time Rocky had seen Donna, he'd fallen madly in love with the raven-haired angel. She was not only a stunner in the looks department, she was so wonderfully bubbly and a pretty bright spark, to boot. Donna was wearing an embroidered cheesecloth top and, being without a bra, it joggled temptingly up and down as she laughed. She slipped her boots off to reveal little pink woolly socks and as she sat down cross-legged to join their circle and smoothed down her long, flowing hippie skirt, Rocky got a tantalizing glimpse of silk-smooth thigh. What he wouldn't have given to take a dive head first under those sexy covers or to be up to the buffers in her gorgeous muff. Alas, the chances were, however, that this fair maiden wouldn't give Rocky a second glance – well, not unless she was really stoned.

2. The third eye

Soon enough the weekend arrived and Rocky again took some time out from revision for a wander down town. In those days, he lived for the weekend and the weeks in between were a drudge that you had to go through to get there. In his childhood, he couldn't wait until Saturday arrived and his favourite comic The Eagle came out. How he'd dreamed of becoming an astronaut like Dan Dare.

What a waste, a voice sighed inside his head.

His appetite for the exotic suitably whetted by reading the two paperbacks, which seemed to open up a new vista in his small town life, Rocky made a beeline for the secondhand book shop.

There were two of them watching that day, and they pulled up in a grey Mini van a short way down the street. They'd have liked to have seen what it was that the lad was up to in that seedy little shop, but they didn't want to risk blowing their cover ... ....

You can get hold of Thank You, I Understand by Etienne de L'Amour from Amazon US, Amazon UK and their European web sites (ASIN: B009KCNLHS).

• By Etienne de L'Amour ~ Google+

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